In the long run, no one is going to remember Nixon for China; they’re certainly not going to remember him for the EPA and other laws he accepted from a liberal Congress. Nixon isn’t similar to Lyndon Johnson, who really is developing and deserves a “complicated” reputation because we attribute quite a bit of responsibility to him for both the major achievements and disasters of his presidency. The Nixon-era achievements, assuming that they are seen as significant achievements down the road, won’t be like that.
No one thinks — or will think — that Nixon actually cared about the environment, or thinks of him as having primary responsibility for most of these domestic policy enactments. To the contrary: the odds are pretty good that many currently overstate Nixon’s domestic policy record because they like playing up the contrast with contemporary Republicans. That distinction may not matter much to future historians. Indeed, a somewhat similar vogue for Nixon’s foreign policy matched the peak of Ronald Reagan’s latter-day Cold War presidency, but has now (I think) faded, so that now we’re just as likely to blame Nixon for his Vietnam policies as we are to praise him for detente and China.
No, specialists in diplomacy and Cold War history will debate Nixon’s contributions to those things, but for everyone else Watergate is going to overshadow all that. And rightly so.
I don’t think I disagreed much in my original post. But take the environment and healthcare: Nixon founded the EPA, he was the first president to mention environmental policy in his State of the Union, he set up OSHA, and the National Environmental Policy Act that reviewed federal projects for environmental harm. In 1974, his healthcare reform proposals were far more expansive than Clinton’s or Obama’s. Yes, his crimes will always be and should always be front and center. But domestically, he makes Obama look incredibly timid.