How Big is the Nixon-to-China Effect?

By Mike Dorf

Consider this the first official entry in a series that has been in de facto existence for quite some time: Blog posts in which I pose (what I think is) an interesting question, acknowledge that I don't know the answer, also acknowledge that I lack the empirical research skills to design or carry out a study that would find the answer, nonetheless speculate on what I think such a study would likely find, and then conclude that somebody else should do the hard work of actually figuring out the correct answer.  So, adhering to the foregoing formula, here we go.

Mitt Romney's substantial post-debate bounce has put me in full rationalization mode, with thoughts like the following ricocheting around inside my brain.

Hey, maybe Romney wouldn't be the disastrous President that I fear.  Sure, he'd be beholden to the social conservative activists on judicial appointments, which would produce what I regard as normatively terrible results, but that might be good for me professionally.  After all, it's more interesting to write about how the Supreme Court is wrong than about how it's basically okay.  And even apart from my own professional interest, maybe there would be a Nixon-to-China effect with Romney in the Presidency.  Certainly the Republican Congress would be more likely to compromise on taxes if a Republican President went along than they would be to compromise for a Democrat.  Likewise on foreign policy, given Romney's hawkish, pro-Likud/Netanyahu credentials, he could lean on Israel to re-engage with the dormant peace process in a way that Obama has been unable or unwilling to do.  Etc.

How much of the Nixon-to-China speculation would actually come to pass in this instance and more generally?  To frame an answerable research question, one would have to be quite a bit more precise about what is meant by a Nixon-to-China effect.  I would define a Nixon-to-China effect as follows:  A political leader is able to accomplish some feat that his political foes would have greater difficulty accomplishing, even though the feat is actually closer to the usual policy druthers of the political foes, but the leader in question succeeds precisely because his assumed or former hostility to the policy ensures that he is given the benefit of the doubt by those on his side of the political divide.

As I said, I don't have a good idea about how we should identify and code the relevant data set for testing the size and frequency of the Nixon-to-China effect.  Nor have I looked in the poli sci literature to see whether something like this has been attempted already.  But neither of those limitations will prevent me from speculating based on my anecdotal observations.

Okay, so my completely speculative hypothesis is that the Nixon-to-China effect is pretty small.  Politicians, including presidents, can usually be expected to pursue some combination of their true policy druthers and those policies that are politically advantageous (even if contrary to the public interest, even as they judge it).  Pretty much by definition, left-leaning politicians derive greater political rewards by tilting left and right-leaning politicians derive greater political rewards by tilting right.  There will be circumstances in which a politician has more room to go to the center than to go to his base, but when that is true, it will usually also be true that an oppositely oriented politician would do the same thing.

Another way of putting my hypothesis would be this: Maybe Nixon, as an undoubted anti-communist, had more room to go to China than a President Humphrey would have had, but there will be many more circumstances in which Humphrey wants to go to China or the equivalent.  My guess is that the impact of the president's (or other politician's) policy choice is substantially larger than the impact of the president's (or other politician's) policy space in which to maneuver.  But (of course) I'm just guessing.