The second problem with Biden’s attempt at ideological jujitsu is that, as with the crime bill, vulnerable people may get hurt. Democratic presidential candidates have bashed China before. But this isn’t an ordinary moment. The coronavirus—and Trump’s racist rhetoric about it—have sparked a horrifying rise in attacks on Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans. To his credit, Biden has condemned Trump’s “xenophobia and fear-mongering.” Without meaning to, however, his new ads may exacerbate it.
Read: Chinese Americans have seen this before
A presidential candidate can, of course, attack the Chinese government without attacking Chinese Americans. But doing so requires some rhetorical finesse—something the Biden ad lacks. The ad doesn’t say that Trump “rolled over” for “Xi Jinping” or the “Chinese government” or even “China.” It says he rolled over for “the Chinese.” As a result, Kaiser Kuo, editor at large of the website SupChina, told me, the ad may contribute to a political “race to the bottom,” in which “Asian Americans will suffer even more terribly from racism.”
Were the Biden camp’s anti-China ads a surefire winner with voters, Machiavellians might justify them as a necessary evil. But for Democrats, posturing as more anti-China than the GOP is a poor long-term bet.
For Republicans—such as Trump, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and Josh Hawley—stoking antagonism toward China makes ideological sense. The GOP is the party of military spending, national sovereignty, and white anxiety. For decades, Republicans have been looking for a new Ronald Reagan to lead them to victory over a new evil empire. They’ve tried Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. But China is the most credible candidate yet: a nonwhite, non-Christian, nominally Communist power that really can challenge America’s dominance in the world.
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Democrats are by nature the party that advocates spending on health care and education rather than on military confrontation. Democrats are the people who now say, in some polls, that climate change is their second-highest priority. You can’t view the climate threat as existential and simultaneously embrace a cold war that keeps the world’s two largest emitters of carbon dioxide from cooperating. Hawks won’t find the Democrats’ anti-China posturing credible. Even if a few Never Trumpers abandon the GOP in 2020, they’ll eventually come home to Cotton’s or Rubio’s or Nikki Haley’s more respectable militarism. And in trying to out-jingo the GOP, Democrats will alienate their Millennial activist base.
By 2005, after two decades of Democrats like Biden and Clinton seeking to beat the GOP at its own game, the historian Rick Perlstein wrote a short book entitled The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo. Perlstein argued that for a political party, as for a corporation (“Superjumbo” is a reference to Boeing’s competition with Airbus), short-term gyrations in response to the vagaries of the market (the “stock ticker”) can have devastating long-term effects if they undermine its core identity. Clinton—who passed free-trade deals, deregulated the financial markets, cut welfare benefits, signed legislation against gay marriage, and helped fill America’s jails—won two presidential elections. But toward the end of his tenure, Democrats controlled fewer Senate seats and fewer state legislatures than they had in 50 years, and fewer governorships than they had in 30 years. Clinton had won; the Democratic Party had lost.
By attacking Trump for being insufficiently nationalist rather than being insufficiently internationalist, Biden is hastening a geopolitical confrontation that threatens progressive goals. And he’s sowing doubts about what the Democratic Party actually believes. He’s choosing short-term advantage over long-term principle.
This is what supporters of Bernie Sanders were worried about, and Biden is proving them right.