Why the Ashbrook Challenge Was Necessary

Steven Hayward

February 1, 1999

Consider the following passage from an old Economic Report of the President:

Mandatory controls on prices and wages . . . distort resource allocation; they require reliance either on necessarily clumsy and arbitrary rules or the inevitably imperfect decisions of Government officials; they offer countless temptations to evasion or violation; they require a vast administrative apparatus. All these reasons make them repugnant.

Sound like something from the Reagan years, perhaps? It is a trick question, for the surprise answer is that this passage was produced by the Johnson Administration in 1968.

So imagine the cognitive dissonance that came to pass three years later when President Richard Nixon, having declared that “We’re called Keynesians now” at the very moment when the collapse of Keynesian theory was becoming most evident, took the step that the Johnson liberals had thought “repugnant” and imposed wage and price controls on the American economy.

This is only one vignette from the Nixon years that explains the sense of betrayal among conservatives that fueled enthusiasm for Congressman John Ashbrook’s quixotic primary challenge to Nixon in 1972. The most conspicuous causes for conservative revolt against Nixon were found in his foreign policy, especially the opening to China, the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with the Soviet Union, and the early innings of détente. It has long been fashionable to say, “Only Nixon could go to China,” but it has never made sense to say, “Only Nixon could have expanded the Great Society.” Yet he did, and therein lies the other half of the reason why John Ashbrook’s challenge to Nixon was a significant public act.

The Nixon years were arguably the pivotal years for the Republican Party in its long march to realignment. By election day in 1968 Great Society liberalism was in thorough disrepute with the electorate, and it is not a coincidence that the annual summer season of rioting came to an abrupt end following Mr. Nixon’s “law and order” campaign for the Presidency. Although Nixon curtailed the Great Society trend toward creating endless new entitlements and social insurance schemes, total federal spending grew faster under Nixon than it had under Johnson. But even more significant than spending trends was the growth of regulation that occurred during Nixon’s watch. The number of pages in the Federal Register (the roster of federal rules and regulations) grew only 19 percent under Johnson, but a staggering 121 percent under Nixon and another 20 percent during President Ford’s brief tenure. It was during the Nixon years that we saw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agen
cy, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and several other bureaucracies.

In other words, Nixon consolidated the Great Society in much the same way that Eisenhower (when Nixon was Vice President, remember) consolidated the New Deal. Heading into the 1972 election season, there was one Republican Nixon feared most–California Governor Ronald Reagan. If Reagan decided to challenge for the nomination, Nixon might have a problem, especially since Reagan came closer than most people know to derailing Nixon’s nomination drive in Miami Beach in 1968. Nixon had won the nomination in 1968 only because he had actively courted the support of conservatives (especially Barry Goldwater and Strom Thurmond), hence seemingly ratifying the conservative direction the party had embraced in 1964 with Goldwater. John Ashbrook had been instrumental in helping Ohio Governor James Rhodes hold the Ohio delegation for Nixon at the 1968 convention.

Hence Nixon’s drift to the Left threatened the hard-won gains conservatives had made in the Republican Party. As Ashbrook Center advisor William Rusher used to say in those days, a movement needs a party just as wine needs a bottle. If no one in the Republican Party would step forward to challenge Nixon, some conservatives thought at the time, we might need to go off and start a third party of our own. Such a course, while superficially appealing, would surely have been disastrous in the long run.

Reagan of course would wait for another hour to make his challenge to the Republican establishment, but it was vital in 1972 that someone step forward to say that Nixon’s course was unacceptable to conservatives. John Ashbrook was the only man with the courage to make the challenge. Ashbrook jeopardized his seat in Congress for what history records as a singularly unsuccessful venture, but his challenge to Nixon was a potent statement that conservatives were not going to let the Republican Party drift off to the Left without a fight. Somewhere in the bottom of a desk drawer I still have my Ashbrook campaign button with the international “No Left Turn” symbol–a succinct and vivid image that could be deployed again today or any day.

Discerning historians and observers will come to measure Ashbrook’s challenge to Nixon for the value it had in serving as a rallying point for conservative sentiment. He made it possible for conservatives to fight and win another day. It is for that example that we honor him still today.

Steven Hayward is a Bradley Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute, and an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center. His current project, a book entitled The Age of Reagan, will be a chronicle of the last 30 years of the 20th Century that will be released in the Spring of 2000.