President Eisenhower opposed school integration, and Nixon and Reagan opposed our democratic rights including the ones they took credit for. Despite Ike’s warning about the Military-Industrial Complex, all three burdened the nation with high and unnecessary military spending. And yet, even they took better positions than today’s extremists.
Six decades ago, Republican President Dwight David Eisenhower, in office from 1953-1961, condemned the “small government” ideas of the current GOP. Ike supported the New Deal, and he said that the way to balance the budget was to tax the rich. Republican President Richard Nixon called for health care legislation that was stronger than the current reform. Republican President Ronald Reagan said of the 1983 Social Security Amendments he signed into law, “These amendments reaffirm the commitment of our government to the performance and stability of Social Security.” The current GOP shows little respect for its own history.
In stark contrast to current Republicans, President Eisenhower supported trade unions, Social Security, and progressive taxation. The Republican Party was the majority party in both of Ike’s terms. The party platform called for action “to protect more effectively the rights of labor unions.” It added, “The protection of the right of workers to organize into unions and to bargain collectively is the firm and permanent policy of the Eisenhower Administration.”
Ike said that opponents of trade unions were “fools,” a fitting description of opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act. He called opponents of Social Security “stupid,” also an apt description of those who today are trying to destroy not only Social Security, but also Medicare, Medicaid and health care reform.
Rather than opposing government health programs, Ike supported and signed into law the Kerr-Mills Act, legislation that provided for government payment of medical bills for senior citizens. Kerr-Mills, a forerunner of Medicare, was means-tested and covered 70 percent of seniors.
Ike believed that the way to balance the budget was to tax the rich. The wealthiest paid a top marginal tax rate of 91 percent (The effective rate, 48 percent, was higher than the current top marginal rate). The tax rate for capital gains was also 91 percent; the rate for gift and estate taxes was 77 percent. Many current Republicans call for ending all corporate taxes.
Like Ike, President Nixon supported Social Security and health care legislation, but only in the beginning of his presidency. In his Sept. 25, 1969, special message to Congress on Social Security, President Nixon said, “This nation must not break faith with those Americans who have a right to expect that Social Security payments will protect them and their families.” Because inflation “undermined the value of every Social Security check,” President Nixon requested that “Congress remedy the real losses to those who now receive Social Security benefits by increasing payments by 10 per cent.”
President Nixon also proposed strong health legislation. In 1974, Nixon presented to Congress a national health care plan that would have covered all workers with federal subsidies. It would have banned exclusions for pre-existing conditions and it prohibited limits on spending for each insured. A Democratic-controlled Congress rejected both of President Nixon’s plans for national health care and Social Security plans. Nixon later stated his opposition, “I’m not to keen on any of these medical programs.” He then approved a profit making “health maintenance” plan.
President Reagan signed the Social Security amendments of 1983 that guaranteed that payments would not be stopped or reduced and also guaranteed that Social Security would still exist for young people “when they need it to cushion their retirement.”
President Reagan added, “These amendments reaffirm the commitment of our government to the performance and stability of social security,” and “This bill demonstrates for all time our nation’s ironclad commitment to Social Security. It assures the elderly that America will always keep the promises made in troubled times a half a century ago. It assures those who are still working that they, too, have a pact with the future. From this day forward, they have our pledge that they will get their fair share of benefits when they retire.” Reagan later opposed Social Security in his “small government” phase.
The Republican Party changed between the Nixon and Reagan presidencies. After President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1965, Jim Crow Democrats began defecting to the GOP. The percentage of liberals grew among the Democrats and decreased among Republicans. The attack on public workers is a product of the “new” Republican-tea party agenda. In contrast, Eisenhower supported the New Deal before the defections, and both Nixon and Reagan supported parts of the New Deal afterwards.
The current GOP aims to destroy the entire New Deal.
Image: President Ronald Reagan, courtesy the National Archives.