China Bashing on the Campaign Trail

With former ambassador Jon Huntsman berating his fellow Republicans this week for their “anti-China pandering”, Businessweek’s Joshua Green examines a long history of presidential candidates talking tough on the campaign trail, but retreating to more moderates positions once in office. Nevertheless, with China widely blamed for America’s stubborn economic woes, the rhetoric may prove more effective than ever in 2012.

“In each case, the candidate pursued very different policies than he advocated during the campaign, and in fact pursued policies than were substantially indistinguishable from those of his predecessor,” says Jeffrey Bader, until recently senior director for East Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council and now a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Romney and his colleagues have many good reasons to ignore this history. For one thing, China looms in the minds of many unhappy voters, particularly in hard-hit Rust Belt states. “If you ask people who is our major economic competitor, they’ll say China,” says Pete Brodnitz, a Democratic pollster at the Benenson Strategy Group. “There’s a broad sense that we’re losing ground to the Chinese, that we’re sending jobs there, and that they undercut us on price while producing inferior products. That is a source of great frustration ….”

Of course, there are legitimate grievances to be addressed: manipulation of the yuan; the theft of intellectual property; the pressure put on American companies doing business in China to transfer technology; a September trade deficit of $28 billion. The trouble is that threatening China won’t resolve any of them. As Clinton likes to say, “When was the last time you got tough on your banker?” And U.S. politicians often exaggerate what confrontation might achieve. For instance, China’s allowing the yuan to float would probably redistribute jobs to other Southeast Asian countries, but it would not return them to Pennsylvania or Ohio.