What the Republican candidates could learn from Nixon

On the one hand, we have groaning entitlement programs (Obamacare now included) in desperate need of some reform; on the other, we have a stagnant economy and a hard-pressed electorate that fears any fraying of the safety net. No president can deal with that combination without a Nixonian level of ideological flexibility – which is to say, more than President Obama has shown, and more than the demands of Republican orthodoxy allow.

Then on foreign policy, too, a dose of Nixon’s cold-eyed view of world affairs would dramatically improve what Republicans are currently promising. Obama’s foreign policy is, put charitably, a stumbling mess. But the Republican pretense that all we need to do is name our enemies and crush them misses the deep complexity of America’s challenges.

We don’t face a single Soviet-style threat or a convenient “axis” of allied evils. We can’t defeat ISIS and contain Iran and push back Russia and restrain China all at once. So we need 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. And that sounds much closer to Nixonian realpolitik than it does to the full-spectrum hawkishness most Republicans are running on.

The odd truth is that the most Nixon-like candidate in 2016 — in the sense of being ideologically protean and personally ruthless, at least — might be the one waiting for Republicans in the fall.