Paul Pillar explains what made Nixon’s China opening so impressive:
This history differs starkly from the foreign policy rhetoric of today’s campaigns because it had a firm strategic foundation and was not flip-flopping, and also because it certainly was not pandering to popular public images of a foreign power [bold mine-DL]. And that gets to one of the ingredients of a great foreign policy decision: not that it represents a departure from what the statesman who makes it said in the past, but that it is a departure from what may be well-entrenched popular perceptions—of foreign powers, of perceived good guys and bad guys in world politics, and of what is and is not possible in shaping relations with each. That is apt to require some political courage, which is another ingredient that is often lacking today.
Pillar is responding to David Ignatius’ interpretation that Nixon’s opening to China was a “a moment in which a leader reverses his past positions to do something that is shocking but beneficial.” Ignatius treats this as a matter of doing something “unexpected,” likens it to “flip-flopping,” and makes the obligatory Mitt Romney reference:
By pretending that his Massachusetts health-care reform wasn’t a model for President Obama’s plan, he trivializes his own achievement and makes himself look like a phony, to boot.
The funny thing about this is that health care is virtually the only example of Romney not changing his position on an issue to satisfy critics. There is a very long list of Romney’s policy shifts that Ignatius could have used and didn’t. There’s no question that supporting the Massachusetts health care law while denouncing the ACA in the strongest terms smacks of a degree of intellectual dishonesty, but it doesn’t support Ignatius’ argument at all. Romney’s problem as a “flip-flopper” is that he has undergone a complete ideological transformation. This does not make him more likely to make “Nixon to China”-style decisions, but proves that he is probably more in thrall to the requirements of ideology and party loyalty than most.
Of course, one thing that distinguishes Romney’s numerous changes of position from Nixon’s opening to China is the important factor of political courage that Pillar mentions. Every shift that Romney has made in the last seven years has been made to placate a core constituency inside the Republican primary electorate. He has rarely demonstrated political courage, and when it comes to foreign policy it seems almost inconceivable that Romney would be willing or able to take the risk that Nixon did on China. Nixon’s “inconsistency” on China was guided by doing what he believed to be in the national interest. He did not make hard-line anticommunism into an end in itself. Romney’s inconsistency has not really been informed by what is best for the country, but rather by what is most advantageous politically for Romney. For the sake of his own self-advancement, he has embraced hard-line foreign policy views as ends in themselves because that is what he is expected to do. Therein lies the difference between making an appropriate policy adjustment to achieve a larger strategic goal and unprincipled pandering.