How do the major Democratic presidential candidates feel about this potentially epic shift? We don’t really know. They rarely bring it up on their own. Bernie Sanders says nothing about China on his website. Neither do Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, or Kirsten Gillibrand. All Joe Biden says about China on his website is that it’s “rising.” On hers, Amy Klobuchar pledges to “invest in diplomacy and rebuild the State Department and modernize our military to stay one step ahead of China.” Kamala Harris’s website says the United States should “work in lockstep with our partners” to confront “China’s unfair trade practices.” That’s about as substantive as it gets.
To be fair, presidential candidates tend to talk about what voters want them to talk about. And despite Trump’s trade war, Democratic voters are most concerned about health care, education, the environment, and abortion. When the Pew Research Center asked Democrats in January which issues should be a top priority in Washington this year, trade came in 17th out of 18.
Leading media outlets aren’t doing nearly enough to jump-start the conversation. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox have all hosted town halls in which moderators and potential voters ask the presidential candidates questions. In many of them, transcripts suggest, China hasn’t come up at all. As far as I can tell, Huawei hasn’t been mentioned once.
When the candidates are forced to discuss China, you can glimpse the faint outlines of a divide between the more left-wing and more centrist contenders. In an interview on PBS last year, Sanders said he “strongly supports” tariffs against China, but thinks “Trump gets it wrong in terms of implementation.” Warren has said that “tariffs are one part of reworking our trade policy.” By contrast, Buttigieg, in his MSNBC town hall, said “a tariff is a tax” that will make Americans “all pay, on average, 800 bucks more a year, starting now.” In hers, Harris also slammed the “Trump trade tax,” which means “we are paying more for washing machines and shampoos.” The implication is that unlike Sanders and Warren, Buttigieg and Harris don’t just oppose the way Trump has imposed tariffs. They oppose tariffs in general.
But the debate the candidates should be having—and media interviewers should be nurturing—is about much more than tariffs. It’s about whether and how to alter the terms of Chinese-American interdependence. Right now, Trump’s efforts to change the relationship seem likely to break Chimerica apart and end globalization in its current form. Yet most Americans haven’t heard a clear Democratic alternative.
There are three broad arguments that Democratic hopefuls could make. The first is that Trump is right to pressure China to open its economy to U.S. corporations, but that he shouldn’t do so unilaterally. Yes, Democrats might argue: Trump is right to demand that Beijing permit American companies to do business in China without forming joint ventures with Chinese counterparts. He’s right to demand that China do a better job of protecting intellectual property so Chinese companies can’t create cheap knockoffs of American goods. Where he’s wrong is in trying to accomplish all this on his own. In Beto O’Rourke’s CNN town hall, the former Texas representative brought forth the kernel of this argument. “When in the history of this country have we ever gone to war, a military fight or a trade war, without allies?” O’Rourke asked. “Because that’s exactly what we are doing now with China.”