Candidate selection in an “only Nixon can go to China” world

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.


This is largely true for the occasional issue that meets certain criteria, but the question is - does the probability that the candidate one wants to support will engage in at least one "great betrayal" multiplied by the sting of said betrayal counterweight the vast number of smaller decisions and policies one favors as well as all the decisions and policies NOT enacted that the opposition supports?

If Obama were to agree to permanent reductions in Social Security, for example, progressives would and should be very upset, but does that counterbalance not merely the big-ticket progressive items (health care, stimulus, finreg, strides on gay marriage, possible immigration reform) as well as the multitudinous smaller agency decisions such as the EPA decisions?

To your hypothetical, yes. Because with the possible exception of health care (still an open question) not one of those examples has actually done a thing to reverse 40 years of declining wages.

It's not useful to repeat misinformation. We have not had 40 years of declining "wages" (including salaried jobs). We had a steady advance in wages until 2008 and wages are starting to advance again. What has declined is wages in sunset industries, such as auto and steel work, where wages 40 years ago were inflated by monopoly profits and union protection. Meanwhile, tens of millions of new, high-paying jobs have been created, but people tend to take these for granted. As Bastiat said, one must distinguish what can easily be seen (some wages have declined) from what cannot (new high-paying jobs).

I'm not sure if the Deng Xiaoping example really works. Wasn't he accused at the time of the Cultural Revolution of being a crypto-capitalist? That didn't turn out to be so inaccurate.

Yes. Deng had earlier been in favor of incentives. His hard line was against democracy.

Maybe, but what are they betraying? It seems to me that positions on issues tend to lag reality. From time to time someone will "boldly" step out in a "new" direction, and it seems like an abrupt reversal to ideologues of their party, when in fact he's just the first one to stop fighting a trend that's been in place for some time.

For example, I think the American entitlement state is on its last legs - pension crises, the flight of productivity from blue to red states, etc. It's obvious to many, but the first big candidate on the left to recognize that fact and propose a rational response will be both lauded and reviled as a radical departure from the conventional wisdom. The American press will be shocked, shocked to discover that unfunded entitlement promises are a bad idea, and proceed in wonder at the new direction this bold revolutionary is offering. When of course, the fact of it has been building for decades.

And only a Nationalist Party (NP) leader could unban the ANC. But only if you no longer have the support of your military base? The NP at the time was no place for weaklings, witness how quickly PW Botha was dispatched and replaced by F W de Klerk. In the space of a decade, South Africa was significantly transformed, at least from a legislative aspect.

Of course, many on the left say this was an illusion and those on the right a betrayal, but 20 years on, what has changed for the average citizen? So for the core, middle of the road US citizen, what would change if a new leader "went to China"?

It partly has to do with your definition of ideologues. Much of the Democratic party wonk set style themselves as pragmatists, but are in fact crypto-ideologues. Interestingly, much of the modern Republican party style themselves as ideologues, gripping their copies of Hayek and Paine, but advocate very pragmatic policies, against type.

But it took Obama to implement the Republican health reform plan.

Unless you argue that the Republican plan now advocated is pragmatic:

you don't need money or insurance to get health care because no one was ever denied health care because they didn't have money or insurance

The problem with the status quo is that doctors and hospitals had no way to get paid under the pragmatic Republican plan. At least tow truck and auto mechanics get to seize the car and sell it off in whole or parts to recover their sunk costs. Where are the Republicans in authorizing creditors taking possession of the body of deadbeats, or maybe their kids, and then selling them off to collect on debts. Such authority in law would probably solve the organ shortage for transplant - no one needs a complex network run by NGOs to find donated auto parts to fix their cars.

But it took Obama to implement the Republican health reform plan.

This is a meme that won't die. A think tank floated a sketch that was never voted and 16 years latr it is tranmogrified into the 'Republican health plan' (which somehow got a grand total of 1 Republican vote).

Are we calling government shutdown and default crises "pragmatic" now?

There was no default crisis.

Compared to the total meltdown of the program they were trying to stop?

Sorry for the snarky answer, but for a more serious response, how else do you explain the complete silence among the Tea Party about the defense cuts in the sequester? What is the Tea Party's position on Social Security reform? What about the support of even tepid reforms like Ryan's budget?

Or also, only Jerry Brown can reform California?

It strikes me that another plausible important factor to this phenomenon in addition to quality signaling would be that the "Nixon" in the case would have the requisite connections and relationships with the opposition group to make a policy shift work. Being an insider in the opposition network could provide the necessary insight of how a deal could be reached and trust among its members as an honest broker or group representative to make a deal accross political boundaries work.

Also, only Rand Paul will appoint a real progressive to the Supreme Court.

I was just thinking that Rand Paul is the only one who can make massive reductions in our grossly overbuilt military. That would fly against long-standing Republican policy, but it would be consistent with libertarianism.

Military expenditure as a proportion of domestic product was lower during the period running from 1993 to 2007, but not any other time since 1940. The military is not 'massively overbuilt'.

We have 10 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. France has one. Nobody else has any. Even Russia has only one diesel aircraft carrier. Italy has two small aircraft carriers. China has one, in dubious condition. We have the largest fleets of submarines, intercontinental bombers, and nuclear missiles. Only Russia equals us in some categories (warheads, bombers, missiles) under the New START treaty -- nobody else comes close. Russia doesn't have the global reach of the U.S. Navy, with our vast fleet of supercarrier battle groups. Never in history has there been an empire as massively overbuilt as ours. Ancient Rome didn't dominate their world as we do ours.

Orthodox libertarians don't feel a need to defend our country beyond its borders. We could massively downsize our military with no risk to our security. We could rely on the Coast Guard and Border Patrol to secure our borders, and completely abolish the Army. We could unilaterally stand down our vast fleet of SLBM and their submarines without any risk -- they only made sense when we feared a decapitating blow against our land-based missiles from the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, the American taxpayers were due a peace dividend which was never received. We remained armed to the teeth against an enemy that doesn't exist anymore.

At what point does "nothing gets done" become the actual best plan (meaning least damage, least backards movement) for a society going forward? At what point does the majority of the electorate start to see that and begin to punish any politician who tries to change anything?

If such a circumstance arises (perhaps largely out of demographic lock-up on the "selfish" issues), then "only ... can do xxx" will become "only nuclear war, plague, or swarms of locusts upon the land can change xxx"

From the Canadian example, and yes you in the US are going to have to do what we did, here is how you go about it:

Elect a radical, reformist, non cooperative group who propose dramatic spending cuts and shrinking of the government. They displace the moderate conservatives and the country club types. They didn't hold power in the parliamentary system in Canada, but represented a very large section of the country, the one who happened to be economically ascendant. It helps if this movement starts making small electoral gains in deep blue country.

Have a number of states enact fiscally prudent reforms. See the results, as their economies start to grow, folks start moving there for work.

Have a major country face fiscal crisis, which scares the living daylights out of everyone.

Have some serious high level bureaucrats have vocabulary issues. They will tend to say 'bullshit' whenever a politician or economist says that we should spend more money, or emulate a space invasion or something similarly insane. Most of the high minded economic policy proposals are no better than dorm room debate stuff. Call them what they are.

Then all it takes is someone in the executive to run with it.

Come to think of it, this is not far off what Clinton did. Pretty good times. Oh you say, we had the tech build up. Sure, but with the regulatory and cost structures of the current US economy, it wouldn't happen here anyways.

McCain wanted to be such a president, which may be why he felt he had to choose Palin as his running mate.

Hasn't Obama done exactly this w.r.t. the Bush war on terror?

One thing that made Obama's flipping of the Democrats' position on the WOT work was the loud, often nutty opposition he faced. Having the Limbaughs and Becks of the world calling him a communist and socialist and secret Muslim and extreme liberal was in many ways useful for allowing him to go to China, or maybe to import a little of East Germany to the US.

The entire premise of this is flawed. Nixon was hardly an ideologue, for instance - he was rather a died-in-the-wool pragmatist who was willing to try anything to solve problems. He instituted price controls, withdrew troops from Vietnam, and generally behaved more like a Democrat than a (modern-day) Republican, which is frequently noted by Tea-Party commentators. Deng also was hardly a true-blue Maoist, as his years in prison and internal exile under Mao well attest.

The reality is that ideologues almost never change their stripes, while pragmatists often pretend to be ideologues in order to gain power. This is the reason why no real change is possible under Obama, while if had elected Romney we would have likely be making at least some strides toward the center.

Nixon was an opportunist, not a 'pragmatist'. He did not solve any notable problems in the domestic sphere, either.

To take a current example, only Obama can finally declare victory in the war on white racism, but he's felt virtually zero pressure to do so.

"I suspect no signal can persuade the elderly that “reallocating funds from Medicare to Head Start” can serve their interests"

It'd tempting to respond, 'That's because Head Start doesn't achieve any results for its money besides free day-care.' But then again, end-of-life Medicare expenditures are often hardly more justifiable. So it's a zero-sum-game between two negative-sum games.

How do you define 'end of life...expenditures'?

All this talk of gridlock, yet Obama rammed through one of the most sweeping policy changes in decades.

Was Bush going against type or with type when he massively expanded healthcare for seniors and started a wildly irresponsible war over nothing?

It wasn't wildly irresponsible, it wasn't over nothing, and the expansion was not that massive.

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