Variations on "Only Nixon Can Go to China"

by Mike Kimel

Variations on “Only Nixon Can Go to China”

This is not a short post. Be forewarned.

A few years ago, I co-authored a book called Presimetrics with Michael E. Kanell, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. In the book, we tried to take an objective look at how Presidents performed on a wide range of issues – everything from abortion to the national debt. To achieve that objectivity, we did two things. The first was to always get data from the most objective source we could find. Thus, when looking at the murder rate, we obtained our data from the FBI. The second thing we did to try to maintain objectivity was to treat each series exactly the same way – looking at how the series changed from right before a President took office to right before he left office.

We got almost no press and the book didn’t do well – perhaps in part because we tried so hard to keep our opinions and biases in check. Additionally, the book had plenty in it to anger everyone, regardless of their political persuasion. (Yes, more often than not, the facts have a liberal bias… but on a few issues near and dear to liberal hearts, they don’t.)

Still, I learned a lot from working on the book. And while Presimetrics is about facts, I want to talk about something subjective. As the old saw goes, only Nixon can go to China. But there’s a corollary – once Nixon goes to China, everyone else can.

And there have been plenty of visits to China in the past few decades. Depending on your political views, you might like some and not others but whatever you might think of them, each of them has created a precedent.

Once the country got used to top marginal rates in the 90 percent range, only an economically liberal President could cut tax rates, particularly since the previous time the country had undergone significant tax cuts (from 75% in 1920 down to 24% in 1929) we had the mother of economic disasters. But once LBJ did cut the top tax rate from 90% to 70%, the door was opened and it took only a few decades for us to reach a point where top rates of 39% are described as socialism.

The next Democrat in the Oval Office, Jimmy Carter, set other precedents that affect us today – perhaps the biggest of which was deregulation. Nixon himself visited at least one other China – there may have been politics behind it, but he created the EPA and made the environment a legitimate issue. The air is cleaner, and rivers aren’t on fire in Ohio any more as a result of that particular visit to China.

Sometimes going to China only applies to one party. The Republican Party used to be somewhat pacifist, or at least non-interventionist. The leading candidates for the Republican nomination for President in January1940 – Taft, Vandenberg & Dewey – were all isolationists. Wilkie, the eventual nominee, was all over the map, but a big part of his campaign was accusing FDR of having a secret plan to get the US into WW2.

The first post-WW2 Republican President, Ike, sent advisers to Vietnam but little more. His military policy seemed to be maintaining the “status quo” to the point where he slapped down the British, French, and Israelis over the Suez. Ike also famously warned America of the threat posed by the military-industrial complex. The next Republican President, Nixon, pulled out of the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until Reagan invaded Grenada that it became kosher for Republicans to militarily intervene in other countries, but since then, Republican Presidents have given us Panama, Gulf War 1, Afghanistan, and Iraq. If the last two had been successful, you could bet American troops would be sitting in military bases in Iran today.
Here’s another single Party visit to China… after WW2, every single President until Gerald Ford presided over a decrease in the national debt as a share of GDP.

That changed with Ford… and every single Republican President beginning with Ford increased the national debt as a percentage of GDP. Each and every single one: Ford, Reagan, Bush 1 and Bush 2. A look at Romney’s economic plan makes it obvious he would fit right in. (If you have any doubts on that point, note that he’s already signed up both Greg Mankiw and Glenn Hubbard as “economic advisers” and then go back and check on their record.)

For a few reasons, increasing the debt wasn’t a precedent for Democrats – and both Carter and Clinton paid down debt, but now, with Obama laying a new course (it’s one thing to increase the debt, it’s a whole other story when that debt is expanded mostly by bailing out industries that have behaved irresponsibly), perhaps we can expect both parties to act like drunken sailors going forward.

Obama has been visiting other Chinas too. Despite LBJ’s tax cuts, in recent decades Democrats have concluded that tax cuts might not be good for the economy when tax rates are “too low.” (Not an unreasonable assumption – the top marginal tax rates fell from 75% to 24% between 1920 and 1929, and we all know how that turned out. Most of us also remember the last time top marginal rates dipped below 30%.) Obama has made it clear that he believes that low taxes are good for the economy, and the only reason he might consider raising the top marginal rate is because “we can’t afford it.”

Obama has also perfected a new political technique for Democrats – the pre-emptive surrender from a position of strength. The fact that he faces an argumentative Congress is not an excuse – he was doing it even when his own party controlled both houses of Congress! Besides, Clinton had an obstreperous Congress to deal with too, and he generally triangulated his way toward whatever he wanted.

Here’s a China that Obama can go to that Bush 2 wanted to visit but couldn’t… “fixing” Social Security. Obama has already laid some of the ground work, what with the payroll tax cut as stimulus, the Social Security commission, and some other odd noises coming out of his mouth. Expect more reluctant progress “fixing” Social Security from a second Obama term than Romney would manage, despite Romney’s enthusiasm for that sort thing.

Which leads us to one more extension of the Nixon going to China rule… a visit to China doesn’t count if it gets immediately repudiated. The Bush 1 tax hikes were immediately repudiated by Republicans. Reagan almost did just that with the Department of Education (created by Jimmy Carter), but then he appointed the wrong flunky to oversee its destruction.

Obama, on the other hand, seems to have not refuted, but rather continued the new precedents set by GW Bush. Homeland Security, spying on Americans, security theater in airports, economic stimulus geared toward rescuing the worst offenders at whatever cost, refusal to hold anyone accountable for what would normally be considered criminal behavior during the financial meltdown, keeping tax rates low, etc., etc., etc., etc. Other than the low taxes, many of these policies would have been a stretch for Republicans pre-GW, but it is pretty clear that Romney wouldn’t reverse course on any of them. The Republican Party’s precedent has been established and confirmed. It won’t be changing.

On the other hand, in theory, Democrats can still go back to being in favor of balanced budgets, higher taxes, more spending on social issues, and accountability for white collar crime. The Democrats can still go back to favoring policies intended to benefit the little guy. (I note, as per Presimetrics, I note that intention doesn’t always make something true in reality and some of the recipes Democrats traditionally follow don’t work, just as some of the recipes Republicans traditionally follow don’t work.)
But these are all approaches that run counter to what Obama has been doing. If Obama’s policies aren’t repudiated quickly, they become precedent, carved in stone. From a practical perspective, the trip to China has to be untaken now, or not at all.

My conclusion from all of this is a very contrarian one: if you voted for Obama in 2008, you will be best-served voting against him in 2012. On the other hand, if you voted against Obama in 2008, you will be best-served voting for him 2012. And yes, I’m serious, though I don’t expect too many people to believe me.

This post was written in response to this.