It’s a truth universally accepted that every Republican who runs for president wants to be Ronald Reagan, and that every Democrat wants to be either Franklin Roosevelt or (God help us) John F. Kennedy.
It’s also a truth universally accepted that nobody ever, ever wants to be Richard Nixon.
But there are times, and this might be one of them, when the country needs a little Nixon. The country and maybe especially the Republican Party, which has been trying to forget its debt to Tricky Dick ever since the helicopter carried him away.
I don’t mean that what we need now is a resentful paranoiac who makes enemies lists, imposes price controls, bombs countries illegally and resigns after covering up his henchmen’s third-rate burglary. And if we did — well, except for the eventual resignation (“only losers resign”) — that much Donald Trump can probably deliver.
Rather, it’s gifts that made Nixon successful before his flaws caught up with him that seem well-suited to the current moment.
First, Nixon knew how to channel an angry, “who’s looking out for me?” populism without letting himself be imprisoned by its excesses. A similar anger has propelled Trump, but as David Frum has pointed out, for all of the Donald’s “silent majority” call-outs he’s clearly more a George Wallace than a Nixon. Some of the anxieties he’s exploited are legitimate, just as the crime wave that Wallace fixated on really was a clear and pressing problem. But like Wallace, Trump is a provocateur and bigot — or a provocateur playing a bigot — with a deserved ceiling on his support.
The problem for Republicans is that they haven’t found a candidate who can appeal to Trump’s politically-disaffected supporters — whether they’re worried about immigration, jobs, terrorism or an overreaching social liberalism — without trafficking in slurs and empty bluster. But that’s roughly what Nixon did in 1968 and 1972, when he addressed (liberal historians would say exploited, but we can have that debate another time) widespread anxieties over social change and disorder without ever repudiating racial equality or civil rights.
In this year’s GOP primary race, the non-Trump candidates have struggled mightily to make that kind of nuanced case. And they’ve struggled, in part, because they lack a second Nixonian gift: An instinct for the non-ideological character of many U.S. voters, primary voters included.
Nixon was a conservative and an opportunist in equal measure: leftward of Barry Goldwater, rightward of Nelson Rockefeller, and basically wherever the voters he was courting needed him to be. Whereas today’s Republican politicians are used to campaigning on a list of Reaganite commandments, and often seem baffled when the conversation leaves their comfort zone.
As it clearly has, again thanks in part to Trump, at various points throughout this campaign — and that’s just in a primary! In the general election and in a hypothetical administration, the Republican nominee will be confronting a political landscape calculated to frustrate any sweeping ideological design.
On the one hand, we have groaning entitlement programs (Obamacare now included) in desperate need of some reform; on the other, we have a stagnant economy and a hard-pressed electorate that fears any fraying of the safety net. No president can deal with that combination without a Nixonian level of ideological flexibility — which is to say, more than President Barack Obama has shown, and more than the demands of Republican orthodoxy allow.
Then on foreign policy, too, a dose of Nixon’s cold-eyed view of world affairs would dramatically improve what Republicans are currently promising. Obama’s foreign policy is, put charitably, a stumbling mess. But the Republican pretense that all we need to do is name our enemies and crush them misses the deep complexity of America’s challenges.
We don’t face a single Soviet-style threat or a convenient “axis” of allied evils. We can’t defeat ISIS and contain Iran and push back Russia and restrain China all at once. So we need a president who can see the strategic chessboard whole, who can instill fear in our rivals but also negotiate boldly in situations where opportunity presents itself. And that sounds much closer to Nixonian realpolitik than it does to the full-spectrum hawkishness most Republicans are running on.
The odd truth is that the most Nixon-like candidate in 2016 — in the sense of being ideologically protean and personally ruthless, at least — might be the one waiting for Republicans in the fall.
But the unfortunate reality for the country is that Hillary Clinton might offer Nixon’s weaknesses without his strengths: All the seaminess and paranoia, but none of the actual achievements. (Neither the Russian “reset” nor the Libya victory-turned-fiasco was exactly the equivalent of the opening to China.)
Which makes her vulnerable. But only if her Republican rivals realize that there’s a better way to be Nixonian, and that in 2016, it might be the winning way as well.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.