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Where have you gone, Richard Nixon? The nation longs for thee.
Tonight’s presidential debate between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney may underscore the evolution of the Republican Party since the 1969-74 period in which Richard Nixon was President. Nixon took office a few days after an underwater oil well blowout polluted 60 miles of beach near Nixon’s California home. A few months later, Nixon started the cabinet-level Council on Environmental Quality which was later rolled into another new creation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the same EPA which his Republican descendants now vigorously attack. Nixon’s justification to Congress was that the EPA would be a comprehensive federal environmental entity which could “make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food.”
In his first year as President, Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) , a bill that Congress stated was intended to “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony” and to “assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings.” President Nixon signed NEPA on New Year’s Day 1970, declaring “that the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment.” A few weeks later, Nixon set a precedent by discussing environmental issues in his State of the Union address to Congress, then continued his very strong year by supporting and signing into law the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).
What happened to make today’s politics so different from 1970? Part is ideology, the rock-hard conviction that free markets should rule and that there should be a presumption against the federal government’s doing anything that interferes with individual freedom, including the freedom to use one’s own property as he chooses. Nixon’s Republican Party successors lean towards minimizing government responsibility to regulate private property activities which harm the public commons. A second difference is more emphasis on financial costs of an owner’s respecting natural systems. Being environmentally responsible can be short-term expensive, as well as inconvenient, and some politicians try to frame regulations to protect America’s natural capital as limitations on freedom to make a buck from your own private property. In 1970, Nixon and the Congress paid more attention to high long-term costs of environmental irresponsibility, pollution costs they saw were paid by everyone.
As an environmentalist, I miss Richard Nixon.