Reagan became the archetype of Republican success because he was both a conservative and a right-winger. Ideological elites could idolize him, while right-wing voters saw him as a man on their side. In the post-Reagan era, conservative Republicans have tended to fail in presidential politics because they persuade themselves that ideological orthodoxy is enough by itself, without a gut appeal to the right — including the right-wing sentiment that resides deep down inside many centrists, and even within some on the left.
Right-wing feeling can’t take the place of policy, however. This is one source of the Republican Party’s current angst. Its wonks, like Paul Ryan, can’t speak to the hearts of the party faithful. Yet the leaders who can, like Trump, have only broad policy themes (immigration, anti-globalization, “America First,” etc.) without any program for government. Dole was not entirely wrong about Nixon — a right-winger can be a pragmatist. But Nixon is a poor model for policy in almost any arena. Inflation ran wild under his administration; the country was unraveling socially; and instead of getting out of Vietnam quickly, Nixon expanded the war to neighboring countries. The opening to China was indeed a masterstroke of diplomacy, one that helped end the Cold War and set the stage for today’s world order. Yet diplomacy so far appears to be the area where Trump is least likely to follow Nixon.
He would be well advised to do so, however, even in the teeth of conservative opposition. Reagan also faced criticism from ideological conservatives for his parlays with Gorbachev, yet those proved to be a strategic triumph. Trump wants to be known as a man who can make deals. That used to be a Republican specialty.