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. 

Tags: Conservative, Republicans, Richard Nixon, Tea Party, US politics