[S]urveying current politics, I find myself missing Richard Nixon.
No, I haven't lost my mind. Nixon was surely the worst person other than Dick Cheney ever to control the executive branch.
But the Nixon era was a time in which leading figures in both parties were capable of speaking rationally about policy, and in which policy decisions weren't as warped by corporate cash as they are now. America is a better country in many ways than it was 35 years ago, but our political system's ability to deal with real problems has been degraded to such an extent that I sometimes wonder whether the country is still governable.
Krugman's just making a point, of course: Ted Kennedy's often-discussed "lost chance" for health care reform during the Nixon administration came at a point when government still worked. Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich were still just kids. Dick Cheney was just a Deputy Assistant to the president, with nothing like the unconstitutional power he would grab for thirty years later (although he was already experimenting with ways to use the Justice Department to harass political enemies).
In short, Krugman's point isn't that he misses Nixon ("surely the worst person other than Dick Cheney ever to control the executive branch"); he misses a time when American government wasn't wrecked.
An interesting question would be: What would Nixon do if he were president today, with all the tools he'd have at his disposal today: His own TV network (Fox News), adversarial journalism at the national level a thing of the past, black sites, signing statements, legal domestic surveillance, the Senate broken, the Republican Party in the hands of right-wingers who don't believe in government, and the notion of bipartisanship (as anything other than a cynical joke) completely gone.
In other words, what if Nixon were in power today, when everything that checked his power and led to his undoing in 1974 has been removed?