23 November 2015

Is this a Nixonian moment?

What the country needs now, or next year at the latest, according to Ross Douthat, one of the New York Times' house Republicans, is someone like Richard Nixon. Ideally it should be someone with all Nixon's strengths and none of his weaknesses or pathologies. What were those strengths, exactly? Douthat sees a relevant set of virtues for both domestic and international politics. Globally, Douthat prefers Nixon's "cold-eyed view of world affairs," his realpolitik, to the "full-spectrum hawkishness" of the most likely 2016 Republicans. Douthat wants 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." At home, we need more of Nixon's "ideological flexibility," compared to little from President Obama and less from most Republicans.

Some Republicans, and even more Democrats, have speculated that Ronald Reagan could not win a Republican primary today. That begs the question whether a Nixon would be possible in our time. On the domestic front, what Douthat is looking for in a modern Nixon is a tricky talent for appealing to his (or her) party's base voters without really pandering to their more radical impulses. The historical Nixon, he writes, "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." This looks like hair-splitting to me. Many people will tell you that Republicans have never stopped pandering to base anxieties and have never really given them what they've wanted. After all, did Nixon's successors, Reagan and the Bushes, ever "repudiate" racial equality or civil rights? But perhaps Douthat uses those issues as analogies. Perhaps the 2016 Nixon has to address some other base concern without "repudiating" anything really valuable. The context Douthat offers is an economy that requires some loosening of regulations, as Republicans want (e.g. Obamacare) while calming fears of "any fraying of the safety net." But to some ears it's going to sound suspiciously like Douthat wants a President who'll promise something but not deliver. Yet if one thing is indisputably different today from 1972, when Nixon ran for re-election, it's that incumbent Presidents can't get away so easily with promising but not delivering. Who remembers John Ashbrook? He was an Ohio congressman who primaried Nixon from the President's right in 1972. He never polled above 10% in a primary and in some states did worse than a GOP primary challenger to Nixon's left. Nixon never had to debate his challengers and probably never ran an attack ad against either of them. Who doubts that circumstances would be dramatically and expensively different for a 21st century Nixon? Nixon may have had to deal with the Tea Party's precursors in the John Birch Society, but the empowerment of super-rich donors and PACs in our time is something Nixon never really had to reckon with, and the accountability that money enforces might have made him less of a master opportunist than Douthat idealizes.

The changed political economy might also limit a Nixon's options in global politics. Nixon is the only President to have become a proverb, i.e. "Only Nixon can go to China." Well and good, but where does Nixon go now? The obvious answer, I suppose, is Iran, but for what purpose? To crush Sunni terrorism in the Middle East? To break their ties with Russia? Well, why did Nixon go to China? Primarily, it seems, to spook the Soviets, and with the actual result of detente. In our time, our theoretical neo-Nixon could go to Iran in order to spook the Saudis and/or the Israelis into better behavior, e.g. an end to subsidized Sunni radicalism or a definitive settlement of the Palestine question. Again, however, neo-Nixon would have to be prepared to pay a price the original never paid. Nixon's trip to China was a stop on the road to a landslide re-election victory. Nixon 2.0 would almost certainly get primaried after returning from Iran; Sheldon Adelson's existence alone probably assures that consequence, but there are many others like him in their biases if not their faith. The flood of money into politics threatens to make Presidents more accountable to factions and donors within their own parties, and undermines the sort of "imperial" Presidency Nixon supposedly embodied. I have to say "threatens" because we haven't yet seen an incumbent President defeated in a primary campaign, but does anyone doubt that the day is coming? For anyone to be "Nixon" the way Douthat wants, that candidate would almost certainly have to resolve, if not promise, to be a one-term President, and would have to care not a fig for what the party does after four years.

Douthat is open-minded enough to suspect that Hillary Clinton may be the most Nixonian candidate in the 2016 field, but he's also partisan enough -- some might prefer "perceptive enough" -- to see more of Nixon's flaws than his virtues in her. She certainly gave no evidence of Nixonian instincts in foreign policy when she conducted it. Whether Douthat's judgment is fair or not, his warning to Republicans remains this: they'll need to be more Nixonian (in a "better way" that doesn't involve breaking into her offices or files, I presume) to beat her, not to mention deal with the sort of crises Nixon thrived on. I guess it would be interesting to see them try, but they're probably all too pure or simple to succeed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

With the cost of campaigns in our current era, I doubt Nixon could have gotten the financial backing necessary for a gubernatorial run, let alone a chance at the oval office. Insofar as the notion of anyone with "all the strengths and none of the weaknesses or pathologies", given that all humans are subject to such, you'd only be trading in a known quantity for an unknown...