Sorry to be so obvious, but isn’t it clear that what the United States needs is a Democratic Richard M. Nixon?

No, not that one. We’ve had plenty of truth-bending, political dirty tricks and abuse of authority from both political parties over recent years.

I’m thinking of the “other” Nixon, the one who longed for a place in history and whose shrewd instinct for the political center produced: the Environmental Protection Agency; arms talks with the same Soviet Union he had built a career on denouncing; wage and price controls that violated every canon of his party’s philosophy; and, of course, the opening of relations with “Red” China.

That sort of Nixon, with a Democratic pedigree, is the figure our republic could use sometime soon.

The breakthrough needed now doesn’t involve China (though relations there certainly could be improved), it’s about national solvency. After radically swelling an already dangerous national debt under the most recent presidency, the nation is on track for a similar run-up during the next few years.

There is no need to restate all the ruin that unpayable debt does to nations that indulge in it. Debt such as what we are now piling up will end badly. With entitlements and interest payments devouring available funds, the result will be some combination of economic catastrophe, the collapse of basic services or a disastrous weakening of national defense. For anyone still in denial, the Flat Earth Society is accepting applications.

No Republican can even put a dent in this problem. The party’s Scrooge stereotype, however unfair in many cases, is too burned into the public and media consciousness to permit the necessary ideas to be advanced from that quarter. The ludicrous but effective slandering of then-Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in 2012 for his interest in Medicare reform — a TV ad portrayed the then-Republican vice-presidential candidate as literally pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair over a cliff — is all the evidence one needs. And anyway, under present management, the GOP shows zero interest in even raising the issue of the national debt.

Hope must come from the other direction. Just as Nixon, one of his era’s most vigorous anti-communists, used the credibility of his personal record and party label to undertake his startling initiatives, a Democrat — and only a Democrat, protected by the party’s tribune-of-the-poor reputation — can lead the country fiscally where it desperately needs to go.

Arguments fully consistent with the Democratic image and catechism are already available, and if they are politically premature today, they will become more apparent and viable with each passing year of procrastination. Modernizing the public safety net is not about trashing it, as our puerile public debate now asserts, but about saving it. Absent significant change, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will go bust, and no one will be harmed more than those most dependent on the programs.

Continued entitlement drift is choking the discretionary government most dear to Democrats — a squeeze that will grow inexorably tighter. Saving public housing, mass transit, federal education funding and (fill in your favorite social program here) will become ever-stronger rationales for what must be done. Attempting to enact even the tiniest portion of the latest Democratic policy fads will require creating some fiscal space on the spending side.

For the moment at least, the Democratic brand is strong among younger voters. These of course are the Americans about to be plundered and gouged by the wanton borrowing in which we, their elders, are engaging: borrowing not for appropriate investment in their future but for our current consumption.

Today’s young may not know much about the nation’s history or civic institutions, but they will not remain forever oblivious to this giant, unconscionable threat to their economic futures. Here, too, a Democrat has a far greater entree to share the stark facts and make the case for change.

Nixon was a practitioner of the maxim “If your base isn’t a little mad at you, you’re doing something wrong.” A considerable portion of the Democratic core will remain obdurate on entitlements, determined never to be confused by the facts. But it may be possible to lead a large and growing segment to see their self-interest being positively affected by reforms such as means-testing and moderating the increases in autopilot transfer payments.

It’s fair to observe that China, as a political “third rail,” was never as high-voltage as Social Security or Medicare. But that’s where the legacy opportunity comes in. Assuming that our republic summons the maturity and discipline to steer away from a fiscal Niagara Falls, the leader at the helm of that achievement will be rewarded with what every president must yearn for: a place of historical honor. More likely than not, that person will be a Democrat.

 

Mitch Daniels, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is president of Purdue University and a former governor of Indiana.