Nixon refused to follow the Eisenhower pattern of consolidating Democratic programs and attempting to run them more efficiently. He was prepared to make major departures, in part to conciliate the South on race; in part to build a new coalition with policies on aid to parochial schools, opposition to abortion, and support for school prayer, all of which would appeal to Roman Catholics; and in part to appeal to his traditional Republican constituencies with attacks on President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society welfare policies.
Race was the most important domestic issue. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) stalled on implementing desegregation of southern school districts until prodded by federal court orders. By 1970 the administration had bowed to the inevitable, with Nixon setting the tone by declaring that legal segregation was inadmissible; almost all of the all-black southern schools were merged into unitary school districts by 1970, and less than 10 percent of black school-children attended all-black schools by that time, a major advance from the preceding administration.
The president remained strongly opposed to court-ordered busing and came out for the concept of the neighborhood school. He proposed that Congress ban court-ordered busing, ordered the Justice Department to oppose busing orders in pending lawsuits, and called for a $1.5 billion program of new federal aid for school districts in the process of dismantling their segregated facilities. These proposals bogged down in Congress, which did pass several measures, sponsored by southern Democrats, to end the use of federal funds for busing.
Nixon's proposed amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, up for renewal in 1970, were tilted toward the South. The president proposed that its provisions be extended to all states so as not to "discriminate" against one region and that voting-rights lawsuits be tried first in state courts, a change that would have diminished the prospects of effective enforcement of the law. A group of Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee scuttled the Nixon draft, and a bipartisan coalition substituted its own extension of the bill, which also included provisions for granting the vote to eighteen-year-olds.
An unusual departure for the Nixon administration was the plan developed by Secretary of Labor George Shultz to provide training and employment openings for minorities on federally funded construction projects. The government, especially Labor Department and HEW officials, began using racial classifications and numerical goals in implementing their desegregation programs—the first example of "affirmative action."
Law and order was another administration priority. Antiwar and civil rights demonstrations and civil disturbances on the campuses and streets created a backlash among the constituencies Nixon was courting. With children of the post-World War II baby boom coming of age, the crime rates soared. The administration responded with the vigorous use of four measures: the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act (1968), the Organized Crime Control Act, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (1970), and the District of Columbia Criminal Procedures Act. Provisions emphasized wiretapping, preventive detention, and other measures that aroused the opposition of civil libertarians. No appreciable dent was made in the crime rate, which was the province of local law enforcement, and a war on illegal drugs also had little success.
Other Nixon initiatives involved attacks on several of the most visible Great Society programs, which Republicans had strongly opposed. In January 1975, Nixon eliminated the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the coordinating agency for the so-called War on Poverty, begun in 1964. The controversial Community Action Program was reorganized, other OEO programs were moved to other departments, and funding for some activities was cut.
The Nixon administration had its own proposals to fight poverty. It rejected two approaches that were being considered at the end of the Johnson administration—nationalizing the existing welfare program or instituting a guaranteed minimum income through a negative income tax—and instead proposed a program of family allowances developed by the Urban Affairs Council under the direction of Daniel Moynihan. The program was eventually defeated in the Senate in 1970 by an unlikely coalition of conservatives and liberals. The administration did succeed in passing a welfare reform measure that gave the national government complete control over welfare programs for the aged, blind, and disabled, and that provided more than $2 billion in additional payments in the welfare programs annually.
Because Nixon was pragmatic in domestic matters, he could be persuaded or pressured into new initiatives. Bar associations, acting in concert to salvage the Legal Services Program from the wreckage of the Great Society, managed in 1972 to get Nixon to lift his veto threat against legislation converting the Legal Services Program into the Legal Services Corporation with a larger budget and an autonomous board of directors, in spite of Nixon's initial decision to curtail the program severely to please his conservative supporters. The Food Stamp Act of 1964 was greatly expanded to provide billions of dollars of purchasing power to the nation's needy, through the efforts of Senator Robert Dole, Republican of Kansas, and a coalition of farm-state senators and urban liberals. Nixon proposed the New Federalism program in response to the pleas of governors and mayors, hard hit by demands for new services and revenue shortfalls caused by recession. Various narrow categorical grants were consolidated into "block grants" to give states more flexibility in programming funds, although by the time Congress finished with the Nixon proposals, the new grants looked suspiciously like the older narrow grants. Congress also passed a Nixon initiative to provide the states and cities with $30 billion in federal revenues over a five-year period. Responding to the demands of environmentalists, Nixon proposed legislation that led to the creation of the Council on Environmental Quality (1969), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (1970), and the Environmental Protection Agency (1970). New laws provided tougher standards for water and air quality.
Nixon's domestic record was neither liberal nor conservative, but politically pragmatic. His civil rights policies, judicial appointments, and unsuccessful attempts to appoint southerners to the Supreme Court all represented political payoffs to the South. Nominees Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell were blocked by a coalition of legislators sensitive to charges by civil rights organizations that these men, while on the federal bench, had either demonstrated opposition to Supreme Court case law protecting the rights of blacks or demonstrated incompetence in applying the law. In spite of well-publicized attacks on some Great Society programs, transfer payments to the poor, the sick, and the elderly increased greatly. Federal expenditures for intergovernmental grants soared. Early in the Nixon presidency, Attorney General John Mitchell, meeting with a group of civil rights leaders, suggested that they "watch what we do, not what we say" in judging the performance of the administration. By that standard, the Nixon presidency must be adjudged innovative and responsive in practice, although it seemed conservative and uncaring in its rhetoric.