Do you know the saying “only Nixon can go to China”? Dan Sutter and I once wrote a paper about the phenomenon. The point is that politicians with a previous record of opposing a policy shift are often the only ones who can bring it about, because their policy support provides a credible signal of policy quality to the relevant interest groups who would otherwise oppose the policy. Another example would be Schroeder of Germany — from the left-leaning SPD — being the one to do real labor market reform.
Of course this effect does not always operate, for instance Chairman Mao was not the one to deregulate the Chinese economy. But Deng Xaoping was an old-time hardliner from way back when.
In any case, let’s say we have entered a new era of American political gridlock, in which usually nothing gets done. When might that gridlock be broken?
Well, gridlock could be broken — at least possibly — by a leading politician supporting a proposal against ideological type. What does this mean?
1. You might be very nervous if your party elects a President the next time around.
2. You might think twice before supporting ideologues within your party. They offer the greatest chance of “betrayal,” and if they “stay true” they can’t push through your agenda in any case.
3. You might prefer to support very weak candidates, who have no strong base of support in the ideological wing of their party. They will find it hardest to betray the ideologues.
4. There are “knowledge issues” and “stubborn self-interest” issues. At the time, it was possible to persuade many foreign policy hawks that an opening to China might better achieve their preferred ends, such as defeating communism. In contrast, I suspect no signal can persuade the elderly that “reallocating funds from Medicare to Head Start” can serve their interests, not even if Lawrence Welk swore as such on a stack of Bibles. If knowledge issues tend to get solved, over time politics may become more and more about stubborn self-interest issues, which diminishes the potential import of the “Nixon phenomenon.”
Whether we are at this final end stage yet is not clear to me, though I suspect not. I still see plenty of room for “great betrayals,” whether it is Obama on entitlements or the next Republican President on…just about anything.