THE BLOG

Richard Nixon and Today's Republican Party

01/10/2013 02:43 pm ET | Updated Mar 12, 2013

Most Americans allowed the 100-year anniversary of Richard Nixon's birth to pass with little fanfare. Who can blame them? The only president to receive rather than grant pardons upon leaving office, Nixon's name remains synonymous with scandal. He may have thawed the Cold War, expanded women's rights, and signed landmark environmental legislation, but Watergate remains his lasting legacy.

At Nixon's funeral in 1994, Bill Clinton advised "the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career [should] come to a close." He was right. If they are willing to look beyond Watergate, Republicans may find in Nixon a way to save the GOP.

A life-long Republican, Nixon would not recognize the current party, now dominated by conservatives. Yet Nixon was a much better conservative than most contemporary Republicans.

Like Tories of old -- and unlike tea partiers today -- Nixon preferred flexibility and adaptability. President in a liberal age, Nixon left intact LBJ's Great Society. His major reforms like the Philadelphia Plan, the first significant federal affirmative action program, represented incremental and consensual change. This stands in stark contrast to tea partiers' utterly un-conservative refusal to ground ideological ambitions in political realities.

Nixon also felt Republicans should represent a variety of beliefs. When conservatives asked why he campaigned for liberal Republicans in every state across the nation, Nixon answered: "I would rather have Republicans as majority leaders in the House and Senate than Democrats."

Likewise, Nixon understood the importance of timing. Witness his volte face on China. For years, Nixon had supported the diplomatic isolation of "Red China."But as circumstances changed, Nixon pivoted, opening relations with the communist nation in 1972.

Such u-turns prompted charges that this "man of many masks" never stood for anything. But as Nixon explained, politicians who were confident in their convictions would "burn down the bakery fighting for principles" rather than "win half a loaf through a judicious compromise." Today's no-compromise Republicans, readying for showdowns on the debt ceiling and Chuck Hagel's nomination to Defense, could learn from his example.

One other quality makes Nixon a role model for the GOP: he was worldly. While retired from politics between 1962 and 1968, Nixon travelled extensively across Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. On these trips, he engaged leading political figures in substantial discussions on international relations. These conversations transformed his views about America's role in the world.

Yet Nixon was no foreign-policy crusader, seeking to "go abroad in search of monsters to destroy," as John Quincy Adams once said. Unlike the neoconservatives guiding the current Republican Party, Nixon argued the U.S. needed to recognize limits to power. He appealed to genuinely conservative virtues of prudence and skepticism concerning sweeping ambition.

In an age when both Democrats and Republicans championed 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." A prescient Nixon acknowledged what no president since has been willing to admit: that U.S. power is past its apogee.

This is not meant to suggest today's Republicans should 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, yet still believe the GOP could learn from his brand of conservatism.

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 many Republicans, from tea partiers to neo-conservatives, but it would 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.