I’m hoping that, following the Obama administration’s recent move to thaw the cold war with Cuba, people will stop using the phrase, “Only Nixon could go to China,” an expression so popular that it has two Wikipedia entries (here and here). As Wiki puts it, “Only a politician or leader with an impeccable reputation of upholding particular political values could do an action in seeming defiance of them without jeopardizing his support or credibility.” In this case, no. Obama does not have an impeccable reputation of upholding cold-war values. But he was able to change Cuba policy.
I’m not the only one who’s been irritated by the expression, “Only Nixon could go to China.” For example, a Google search yields this 2012 article by Tom Switzer. So my point is not new. But I think it’s worth remembering.
To speak of “only Nixon could go to China” is to celebrate the unusual in politics, and in some ways this is fine. Nixon going to China was unexpected and, for that reason, is worth trying to understand (as Switzer was trying to do). But it is not usual. Usual is that politicians on the left do policies on the left, and politicians on the right do policies on the right.
Obama’s opening to Cuba makes a lot of sense, and for that reason it’s worth thinking about the reasons why such an obvious-seeming move wasn’t taken five, 10 or 20 years ago. Let’s remember — it was Barack Obama, not a conservative anti-Communist, who is trying to end the cold war with Cuba; just as it was George W. Bush, not a liberal redistributionist, who cut taxes on the rich; just as it was Clinton and Obama who nominated liberals to the Supreme Court and Bush who nominated conservatives, etc. Nixon going to China was unusual, but the unusual is not the norm, despite the existence of that catchy phrase.