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Nixon’s lessons for today’s Republicans

9 January 2013

4:27 PM

9 January 2013

4:27 PM

If the past few weeks are any indication, conservative Republicans learned very little from the 2012 election. While the party’s establishment tries to claw its way back from defeat, tea partiers and neoconservatives have decided to double-down on obstructionism.

Less than a week after nearly derailing the fiscal cliff negotiations, tea partiers threaten to drive the U.S. into default in the coming debt-ceiling showdown. Meanwhile, neoconservatives are sharpening their knives over foreign policy realist Chuck Hagel, whom President Obama nominated this week for Secretary of Defence.

Mired in ideological infighting, how can the Republican Party rescue itself? The answer, surprisingly enough, is Richard Milhous Nixon.

Nixon, born 100 years ago today, would not recognise the current Republican Party. Though a life-long Republican, his view of the party was at odds with the doctrinal conservative movement that dominates today’s GOP. Yet Nixon was a much better conservative than most contemporary Republicans. He may not have showed a boot-faced commitment to the tenets of American conservatism, but that’s not the standard by which he should be judged.

For Nixon, whose heroes included European conservatives Churchill, de Gaulle and Adenaeuer, the GOP was not a rigidly ideological party. Like Tories of old – and unlike tea partiers today – Nixon preferred flexibility and adaptability.

At a time of widespread support for the welfare state, Nixon barely altered LBJ’s Great Society. His major reforms like the Philadelphia Plan, the first significant federal affirmative action program, represented incremental and consensual change. Given tea partiers’ utterly un-conservative refusal to ground ideological ambitions in political realities, such an approach has much to recommend it.

Nixon also felt Republicans should represent a variety of beliefs – or, in moderate Republican parlance, a Big Tent. As president, he appointed liberals to senior positions, even as he courted conservatives. Nixon stumped for both liberal and conservative Republican candidates. Shocked conservatives frequently asked why he campaigned for liberals. Nixon’s answer was simple: ‘I would rather have Republicans as majority leaders in the House and Senate than Democrats.’


Likewise, Nixon understood the vital importance of timing in political affairs. ‘Circumstances are infinite,’ Edmund Burke observed, ‘he who does not take them into consideration is not erroneous but stark mad.’ Nixon agreed. What made sense in one set of circumstances could be futile or disastrous in another, not just for the party but for the nation.

Witness his volte face on China. For years, Nixon had been a staunch Cold Warrior who supported the diplomatic isolation of ‘Red China.’ But by 1966-67, as circumstances started to change – the Sino-Soviet split, America’s quagmire in Vietnam, shifting public opinion attitudes towards U.S. China policy – Nixon pivoted, opening relations with China in 1972.

Such u-turns prompted charges that “Tricky Dick” never stood for anything, that this “man of many masks” would negotiate everything. But as Nixon once put it, those politicians supremely confident in their convictions would ‘burn down the bakery fighting for principles’ rather than ‘win half a loaf through a judicious compromise.’ As the debt ceiling debacle and fiscal cliff crisis demonstrate, the GOP could learn from Nixon’s approach.

One other quality about Nixon makes him a role model for today’s Republicans: he was worldly. He saw the world as it was, not as idealists envisaged it.

During his so-called Wilderness Years – from his 1962 political retirement to his 1968 presidential run – Nixon travelled extensively across Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. These excursions abroad included substantial discussions about international relations with leading political figures. And they helped redefine his views about America’s role in the world.

Compare that to the dearth of serious foreign-policy thinking in today’s GOP. In his 40-minute nomination speech, Mitt Romney dedicated only one paragraph to foreign affairs. His running mate, Paul Ryan, skipped the subject altogether. Get ready for their Senate colleagues to attack their former colleague, Chuck Hagel, for being soft on Iran, hostile on Israel and anti-military.

Yet Nixon was no foreign-policy crusader, seeking to ‘go abroad in search of monsters to destroy,’ which John Quincy Adams once warned against. Nixon explicitly argued the U.S. needed to recognise limits to power. He appealed to the classic conservative virtues of prudence, scepticism concerning sweeping ambition and the dangers of hubris.

In an age when it has been more or less compulsory for both Democrats and Republicans to champion a new American Century, Nixon lauded an emerging multipolar world. ‘When we see the world in which we are about to move,’ he remarked in 1971, ‘the United States no longer is in the position of complete pre-eminence or predominance [and] that is not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it can be a constructive thing.’ And on the eve of his China trip in early 1972, he declared in language more reminiscent of Metternich and Bismark than Kennedy and Reagan: ‘I think it will be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other.’

Though premature, Nixon acknowledged what no president since has been willing to admit: that we live in a pluralistic world and that U.S. power is past its apogee.

None of this is meant to suggest that today’s Republicans ought to jettison long-held principles of small government, or rush to accommodate Democrats at every turn. Nor is it an attempt to sugar-coat the crimes of the Nixon administration. One can concede Nixon had a dark side that destroyed his presidency, and still believe the GOP could learn from his brand of conservatism.

So almost four decades since his resignation, what might Nixon advise Republicans today?

Avoid ideological litmus tests for candidates. Adapt to the changing circumstances of a more liberal post-election environment. And adopt a more realist view in a post-American world.

Such advice might offend the sensibilities of many Republicans, from tea partiers to neo-conservatives, but it would help improve their electoral prospects in a progressive age. It might also put an end to the divisive politics dominating Washington today.

Tom Switzer and Nicole Hemmer are research associates at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Switzer is also editor of the Spectator Australia. 

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Show comments
  • commonsenseobserver

    Are you crazy? There’s a difference between being a RINO and someone who showed disdain for any form of common-sense, not to mention Conservatism.
    This corrupt, self-serving, domineering style of politics is something even Tom Delay cannot match, to say nothing about Boehner or McConnell.

    • margotdarby

      If a latter-day Nixon sided with the Tea Party activists, he would not be siding with statists. You may recall that the Tea Party equivalents of 1970-71 did not at all like his economic controls, but he did it to please the statists. (If you don’t recall that, please accept the information gratis, with my compliments.)

      And President Nixon was never delusional or paranoid; even in the worst days of his siege, he never lost control. What Nixon was, was prudent and hypervigilant. The armies of the night were gunning for him, and he knew it. That’s not paranoia, that’s realism.

  • margotdarby

    The authors had nothing new or witty to say about President Nixon, but they gabbled on anyway. Nixon in fact had a lot in common with Mitt Romney: he “lost” a Presidential election to an opposition so brazen they didn’t even bother to conceal the evidence of their ballot-stuffing. Nixon, and Romney, thereupon chose to lie low and not demand a recount, because a) they’d been swindled through their own negligence, b) nobody likes a sore loser, and c) there would be other elections, and this time they’d cut the cards.

  • cg

    Excellent article by real historians. Nixon was so much more than Watergate and his foreign policy, in particular, was outstanding. He was helped by Kissinger, of course, but far too often Kissinger has got all the credit, when the President had a massive input into policy himself.
    The Tea Partiers are disgusting and deserve th political wilderness they are now facing.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      What “wilderness”?

      Their wave held at the federal level, and expanded at the state and local levels.

      All this despite hysterical shrieking you lefties did about them.

      See, when the wave hits, and holds, despite the counterattack, that means it’s there to stay. Now it’s about growing it.

    • Curnonsky

      Let’s not forget Nixon’s passivity in the face of the OPEC oil embargo which allowed the Saudis to gain enormous wealth that they put at the disposal of Wahhabi ideology, nor his brazen sellout of Israel, South Vietnam and Taiwan. Nixon’s foreign policy was unprincipled, short-sighted and cynical (why else hire a toad like Henry Kissinger as secretary of State?).

  • Daniel Maris

    I think Nixon was an absolute disaster for America. He was the man who armed China and prolonged the life of the communist dictatorship, so now America has to fear this new superpower.

    Under Nixon America lost its way.

    He sponsored hysterical anti-communism when it suited him – doing much damage to America’s image around the world.

    He continued the policy of useless bombing over Vietnam again blackening America’s image.

    He abused his Presidential powers by sanctioning illegal acts of burglary and so on (and probably much else we never heard about).

    He consorted with mafia types (Benny Bebozo??? – it was a long time ago).

    He subscribed to the theory that America’s long term interest was served by backing torturing tyrants around the world. I wonder what the founding fathers would have thought of that.

    He abandoned gentle South Vietnam to the murderous Communist ideologues.

    I don’t find anything good in his record.

    • telemachus

      Nixon did with China what we all should have done
      With better access to their markets we would not be in the straits we are now in

      • Tom Tom

        You have zero business nous

        • margotdarby

          Ah, someone else uses the Attic word ‘nous’—so common 75 years ago, but where’d it all go?

    • Tom Tom

      Most of what you accuse Nixon of Kennedy did in spades so did LBJ

      • the viceroy’s gin


        That guy knows as much about US politics as he does about engineering and zoology.

      • commonsenseobserver

        That’s to be expected.
        Republicans ought to have higher standards than those two.

  • TomTom

    Nixon went off Gold in 1971 and that has caused the global problems today. The USA preferred to spend on Vietnam plus Great Society without taxing to pay for them both and started the explosion of Fiat Currency which has destroyed the global financial system. Republicans do not know how to resolve this mess and Democrats simply do not care…that is why the USA is headed for major dsaster

  • Curnonsky

    Nixon a conservative? Insofar as he had any principles at all he was a Bismarkian statist, a firm believer in an all-powerful paternalistic regime in which the populace exchanged their freedom for a steaming bowl of gruel on the table three times a day. In other words he was the philosophical twin of the current occupant of the White House. The only sense in which he was conservative was cultural – he was famous for wearing a suit while walking on the beach.

    It is instructive to compare Nixon and Obama – the two most divisive presidents in recent US history. Both share a common disdain for the nitty gritty of politics, for those who dare to oppose them and for the niceties of the Constitution. Unlike Obama Nixon was clever at foreign policy but together with his henchman Kissinger let his innate cynicism blind him to the possibility of defeating Soviet communism. Like Obama he was no friend of Israel, inded like Obama he had no compunction at all about betraying American allies when he saw an advantage.

    Is this article representative of Spectator Australia? They evidently worship at the same altar to the sainted Barry as the London version.

    • TomTom

      NIxon could not have defeated the USSR – he had warned China of the Soviet plan to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes on China in 1969; and he avoided Brezhnev’s invitation for US troops to restrain Israel while Soviet troops restrained Egypt in 1973….he knew exactly how dangerous it was. There was no possibility of the US defeating Soviet Communism in 1970s – the GDR was prepared every Tuesday for invasion from West Germany…..the preparations for war were simply far more imminent than in the late 1980s. Brezhnev was not Andropov or Gorbachev. You might find the French film “Farewell” amusing in revealing just how many of US launch codes were known to the Russians and how many Soviet agents there were in the Reagan White House

      • the viceroy’s gin

        The US had a firm plan to nuke the Sovs if they made any moves.

        They had the capability, in theaters and strategically, and they made sure the Sovs knew they had the capability, and the willingness to use it.

        That was the whole point of the early 80’s Pershing II deployments in Europe, which the Sovs and their familiars fought against. The introduction of the Persing forced the Sovs to accept that that capability was going to be maintained for another generation at least, and used if necessary.

        You’re right about the Warsaw Pact running over US forces in Europe, if they’d chosen to do so, absent a nuke response. But a massed Warsaw Pact force was gonna get nuked. Everybody knew that. It was out in the open. Give Nixon and most other US presidents credit for that much. They knew their own mind, and they made sure the other guy knew it, too.

  • the viceroy’s gin

    But I suppose it’d be best to address your inaccuracies.

    First, the Tea Party conservatives you disparage saw their 75 year historical shellacking in the US House reaffirmed in 2012. I count a mere 3 TP stalwart having gone down in that election, one of them by blatant establishment trick in Florida. The rest were reelected.

    The 2010 wave struck, and it held in 2012, in other words.

    Romney means nothing, and never did, really, as conservatives never supported the guy. I’ll make the obvious case that the Tea Party conservatives are better off with Obama in the WH, rather than a milquetoast plutocratic progressive like Romney who believes in everything Obama does, but would split any opposition to it.

    I’d tend to call the 2012 federal election status quo then… a draw. But at the state and local levels, Tea Party conservatives were victorious, and built upon 2010 gains. Not of interest to you who have little understanding of the US politics, but for those of us who do…

    And on that basis, that 2012 status quo federal election, you imagine that people should support your leftist agenda? That’s not very sensible, kids, is it?

    I’m still getting a kick out of you leftists swooning longingly over Nixon. It’s one of the advantages of growing old, I guess. You get to chuckle at you lefties’ philosophical contortions, having lived through the first pass through with your compatriots.

    • David Lindsay

      And then the House Republicans voted for the Senate Bill on the fiscal cliff. The Tea Party cannot now remove them. It has nowhere else to go.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        Of course the establishment voted for the Senate Bill. That’s precisely why there is such a thing as the “Tea Party”… to uproot the establishment who agrees on the systematic destruction of that Republic, as per that Senate Bill.

    • TomTom

      Having met both Nixon and Romney I find it very hard to see any similarities. Nixon was born poor and really did make it from very modest circumstances whereas Romney is a patrician whose father was Governor of Michigan and ran AMC Motors……as patrician as they come. Poor boys like Nixon or LBJ have no way of getting to the White House today

      • the viceroy’s gin

        I’d agree, Nixon and Romney are quite dissimilar in background, although Nixon’s Quaker background and Romney’s Mormon background might position them both as “the other”, so there’s at least that similarity.

        Politically though, there’s little to distinguish between them. Both were/are progressive and love(d) big government, and were/are absolutely indistinguishable re domestic policy, after the necessary historical translations and sculpting. Foreign policy wise? We’ll never truly know, because Romney never made it to the top.

        By the way, Obama could be considered a “poor boy”, using your rudimentary definition, and he’s currently sitting in the WH.

        • Tom Tom

          Difference is Nixon got a Scholarship to attend Harvard but was needed to mind the store after his brother died…….Obama was Columbia and Harvard Law School – you don’;t get more Ivy League than that, then a bag man for the Pritzkers in Chicago which is about as “Made” as any man can be…….so I think Nixon had a much more modest background than Obama and if a Quaker he volunteered to join the US Navy rather than wallow in a deferment

          • the viceroy’s gin

            Yes, Obama’s skin color got him entree to an elite education, no doubt. The bag man portion of it is nothing unusual though. He slunk out to the urban hinterlands to make his mark, which is a typical path for those types. Most don’t make it far, but he somehow managed to do so.

            I’d say what separates Nixon from Obama wasn’t so much anything other than temperament and luck. Obama in another time and presidential election would have been bombed and never heard from again. But he presented an ebullient facade, and the timing was right, and here we are.

            Nixon on the other hand wasn’t so ebulliently tempered, and he made his own luck, you gotta admit.

            I don’t much care for either, but it’s an interesting exercise comparing them.

            • Curnonsky

              What Obama has that Nixon famously lacked is “cool” – one reason Kennedy defeated him in 1960.

              • the viceroy’s gin

                CONSPIRACY ALERT

                Nixon won that 1960 election.

                That’s why you gotta laugh at all the “stolen election” memes of recent years. Back in the good ole days of 1960, they really DID steal elections.

              • Tom Tom

                Chicago polls closed in Cook County late because Mayor Daley had not finished stuffing ballot boxes. Nixon was cheated in 1960 by Kennedy/Dale/Mafia fraud

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  Don’t forget the LBJ fraud down along the IH-35 corridor and hill country.

            • Tom Tom

              Not urban hinterlands – Chicago is not Hinterland and Pritzkers are not small fry. He ws hired to get Blacks out of prime real estate for developers

              • the viceroy’s gin

                Well, Chicago’s not New York or Boston or Washington, so yes it qualifies as urban hinterlands, socially and politically speaking, in US terms. Substitute any Northern city, or west coast.

                Almost every one of the Ivy League Obama types parachutes into a pat hand out in some urban hinterland, assuming they can’t secure one of the New York, Boston, Wash. cherry slots. And they inevitably find a sugar daddy, Pritzker or equal, to finance their way. This is a well traveled route. Agreed that Obama was a fixer for a moneyed elite, but so have been every Illinois governor and Chicago mayor in my lifetime.

    • cg

      You do know that theTea Party/GOP only lost three seats in Congress because of gerrymandering in the redrawing up of congressional districts? I’m sure that you do (seeing as you claim to have a better understanding of US politics than anyone else here) but are just trying to make the best of the shellacking that your nasty, unpleasant, uncaring, unthinking and unlearned friends took in November.
      You may not have liked Romney but I’ sure you were one of those who creamed their jeans over Ryan and his Ayn Randian fantasies. He was on the ticket as well, you know. And he helped it go down to defeat.
      You LOST – big time.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        Actually, no, “gerrymandering” had little or no bearing on the 2012 Congressional elections, as Cooke, Barone, Rothenberg and any number of esteemed US political researchers have made note of. Even the Left’s white knight Silver has agreed on that point.

        The Tea Party wave hit in 2010, and held in 2012. Simples.

        Ryan voted up all of the establishment’s spending these past 15 years or so. You lefties go berserk at anybody who even breathes that spending growth should slow, but that doesn’t make Ryan a fiscal conservative, and Romney certainly wasn’t.

        The 2012 federal election was a draw at the federal level. At the state and local levels, it was a smashing victory for the Tea Party and conservatives, and sets up the 2014 offyear election quite nicely for them.

        But you’d have to understand US politics to understand that.

  • the viceroy’s gin

    The hard Left is rehabilitating Nixon now?

    That’s too funny!