Skip to main content

Nixon at 100: A model for GOP?

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
updated 8:46 AM EST, Wed January 9, 2013
President Richard Nixon was in the White House from 1969 to 1974, when he became the first president to resign from office. He died at 81 in 1994. President Richard Nixon was in the White House from 1969 to 1974, when he became the first president to resign from office. He died at 81 in 1994.
HIDE CAPTION
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Timothy Stanley: Wednesday is 100th anniversary of Richard Nixon's birth
  • He says GOP could take a page from Nixon on adapting. Nixon was good at getting elected
  • He says Nixon was politcially strategic: backed ERA, poverty fighting measures, founded EPA
  • Stanley: Without Watergate, he'd likely still be popular

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- Wednesday is the 100th anniversary of Richard Nixon's birth. He remains a controversial figure, and not just on the political left. Last year, I was covering the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington when I came across a stall selling old political pins. Unable to resist, I bought one with a picture of Tricky Dick giving his best crocodile smile beneath the classic slogan "Nixon's The One!"

I slipped it on at a party later that evening and was surprised by the results. None of the young conservative activists had a nice word to say about Nixon and many were quite hostile. To them, he was the archetypal Republican in Name Only -- a liberal in conservative clothing. While most Americans probably remember him only for Watergate or Vietnam -- and many liberals still revile him as a war-bating, divisive anti-communist -- from a conservative perspective his politics were disappointingly moderate.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

He's a reminder of an older, more centrist kind of Republican, the kind you don't see very much these days. It feels today like the Republican Party is fighting a series of rear guard actions -- on the fiscal cliff, on guns and on Obama's nominations. That's partly a reflection of political reality; they lost the presidential election and only control the House. But a common theme running through each of these battles is "inflexibility." They seem unwilling to yield either to President Obama's post-election authority or to the popular mood. Of course, principle is an admirable quality. But it won't necessarily win the White House in 2016.

A lesson in the benefits of adapting to circumstances might be taken from the life of Richard Nixon.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In domestic policy, Nixon bowed to the liberal consensus of his era. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, founded the Environmental Protection Agency and was a proponent of the poverty-fighting measure of guaranteed income. He also established the first federal affirmative action program - the Philadelphia Plan, which required government contractors in Philadelphia to hire minority construction workers.

As was so often the case with Nixon's public compassion, this served a private purpose of outflanking his opponents. His environmentalism was designed to deny the issue to liberals; his support of affirmative action divided them. The Philadelphia Plan was opposed by many Democrats, not just by Southern conservatives but also by labor leaders who saw it as a challenge to seniority programs. It set unions and civil rights activists against each other, while the president grabbed a little credit for being progressive.

Even on foreign policy, the record is a complex mix of hawk and dove. Nixon said he wanted "peace with honor" in Vietnam, which meant concluding the conflict in such a way that didn't undermine American military or political credibility. This translated into a perverse policy of extending the war to end it -- bombing Cambodia to a point of social anarchy that would lead, inexorably, to the genocide of the Khmer Rouge.

Opinion: GOP's obstructionism is suicide strategy

Nixon's Watergate testimony released
Politicians ask for forgiveness
Debates enter the TV age
New connection between mafia and Nixon

But Nixon won re-election in 1972 partly on a reputation as a peacemaker with whom the Democrats could not compete. His visit to China began the slow process of integrating the Forbidden Kingdom into the rest of the world, and it put pressure on the Soviets to go further on detente. In 1973, the administration helped Israel resist an Arab invasion by (belatedly) supplying arms. When that war was concluded, Nixon was widely regarded as having saved the world from a superpower confrontation in the Middle East and he was greeted by enthusiastic crowds in Egypt. But, by that point, his reputation at home had been so scarred by his involvement in the Watergate break-in that he couldn't capitalize on his image as a global problem solver. Nixon was his own worst enemy.

Beyond his foxing of opponents, Nixon was not without a personal manifesto. He was saving his more conservative policies for after his re-election. Had Watergate not reduced his political capital so early in 1973, there's a chance Nixon would have pushed ahead with his agenda of a New Federalism and undone much of the liberalism of his first term. The New Federalism was similar to what would later become Reaganism: tax cuts, more power to the states, welfare reform.

Nixon, then, was a mix of ideals and prejudices, but all tempered by a respect for the possibilities and limitations of power. Aside from Watergate, that's why he's so unpopular with the contemporary conservative movement. While it's true that the Republican Party continues to nominate moderates (from George H.W. Bush to Mitt Romney), in recent decades they've been expected to pass a test of ideological purity put to them by a restive base that invariably shifts the candidates' platform to the right.

Nixon also did his best to court conservatives, but his instinct was always to anchor himself in the rhetorical center. As president, his ambition to build a permanent New Majority depended upon walking a line between the radicalism of the left and the racialism of the far right. His strategy wasn't built entirely upon pursuing Southern racists, as many liberal critics have suggested. Had it been so, he wouldn't have been re-elected in 1972 by winning every single state but Massachusetts. The fact is that Nixon was often very popular with a lot of regular Americans. In 1968, he even took 36% of the black vote, a much stronger performance than Mitt Romney's paltry 6%.

Today, it's difficult to talk about Nixon as a model for contemporary Republicans because his political reputation is so tarnished. But he does offer an interesting alternative electoral strategy to that pursued by the contemporary right and embodied by the mythically consistent Ronald Reagan (the Gipper was more moderate than his fans admit). And the test of how well Nixon's pragmatism worked is measured in his electoral victories.

Despite his two memorable defeats in 1960 and 1962 ("You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore"), he won election as a House representative, a senator, a vice president and a president. Considering that record, moderate Republicans in pursuit of the White House have every cause to get misty-eyed when they hear the name Richard Nixon.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 3:28 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT