Abbott’s Cuba trip a departure for conservative

The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, led a trade delegation to Cuba on Monday. It’s one of those events that is extraordinary in how ordinary it is. And it points to how consequential the changes have been during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Abbott is doing exactly what governors do: helping businesses in their states find new markets. Yet he is also a staunch conservative in a party that has condemned Obama’s opening to Cuba.

This opposition includes virtually all Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail. So why is Abbott making the Cuba trip?

Most Republican incumbents want to avoid primary challenges from fellow Republicans calling them “soft” on Obama. Abbott seems to be signaling that both a record of accomplishments and strong relationships with Texas’s business community are more important than ideological purity.

Abbott isn’t the only conservative politician to do this. Asa Hutchison in Arkansas preceded him to Cuba recently. Hutchison also sought a compromise on Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, as incoming Republican Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky appears to be doing as well.

They are politicians responding to incentives. And Obama’s changes in foreign and domestic policy have sufficiently changed incentives even for Republicans.

The same thing (social scientists call it “path dependence”) will happen if any of the Republican presidential candidates now pledging to repeal all of Obama’s policies winds up in the White House. This leader will find, for example, that while canceling the nuclear deal with Iran might keep conservative constituents happy, it would also create conflict with U.S. allies that support the agreement. And if Iran developed nuclear weapons after the deal was rescinded, the incoming president would get the blame.

Similarly, ending agreements Obama is making on climate (including those in Paris this week) will not only antagonize other nations. Such a reversal will also undermine U.S. businesses that have already acted on incentives created by the president’s climate actions.

This doesn’t mean Obama’s policies are permanent. The next president and future Congresses will change many of them and start off in new directions. But returning to the status quo on Cuba, Iran, climate, health care or on many other issues will be just as impossible as it was for Obama to return to 1999 on U.S. policy toward Iraq.

So if you’re a Republican choosing among the presidential candidates, you might not want to settle for oratory about rolling back the clock and repealing everything associated with Obama. Instead, watch the politicians who adapt to the world created by the new programs and policies – and who have realistic plans for changing them.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.