If he wants to attack Donald Trump’s response to COVID-19, Joe Biden has an embarrassment of options. The presumptive Democratic nominee could slam Trump for ignoring his own advisers’ warnings about the potential severity of the virus. Biden could skewer the president for his administration’s inability to develop a coronavirus test. He could blast the Trump administration for failing to adequately stockpile personal protective equipment. He could condemn the large quantities of misinformation that Trump has propagated about the disease.
For the moment, however, Biden has chosen a different angle: He’s attacking Trump for knuckling under to Beijing. Yesterday, the Biden campaign unveiled an ad—filled with menacing images of Chinese soldiers—claiming that “Trump rolled over for the Chinese.” It follows another spot, paid for by the pro-Biden super PAC American Bridge 21st Century, depicting the incumbent as a stooge for Beijing. “Everyone knew they lied about the virus—China,” a narrator declares, against the backdrop of a fluttering Chinese flag. “President Trump gave China his trust.” On Friday, the Biden adviser Antony Blinken told reporters that “the president praised China and President Xi more than 15 times.”
The Biden camp’s logic is easy to understand. Trump has made China the primary scapegoat for his failures. His supporters are running ads under the hashtag #BeijingBiden. So Biden and his strategists are meeting fire with fire. They’re answering the charge that the former vice president is soft on China by saying that Trump is.
This form of ideological jujitsu comes naturally to Democrats of Biden’s generation, who in the 1990s tried to turn the tables on Republicans who had been painting them as antibusiness, anti-military, and pro-criminal during the Nixon and Reagan eras. In 1992, Bill Clinton ran for president promising to cut taxes. In 2000, Al Gore proposed to spend more on the military than George W. Bush. And in 1994, after successfully shepherding Clinton’s crime bill through the Senate, Biden crowed, “The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties … The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 125,000 new state prison cells … I’d like to see the conservative wing of the Democratic Party.”
In the 1990s, beating the GOP at its own game was at times politically shrewd. Clinton’s ghoulish enthusiasm for the death penalty—which in 1992 led him to leave the campaign trail to oversee the execution of the mentally disabled murderer Ricky Ray Rector—probably helped inoculate him from the soft-on-crime attacks that had helped sink Michael Dukakis in 1988. Still, Biden’s decision to try to out-hawk Trump on China has three major problems. First, it promotes bad foreign policy. Second, it could stoke anti-Chinese racism. Third, it doesn’t even make long-term sense politically. Republicans, who promoted economic integration with China in the past, are now committing themselves to a cold war with China. If Democrats think that’s a political environment in which they’ll thrive, they’re making a big mistake.
First, the policy. The implication of Biden’s new ad is that China didn’t give Trump timely information about the COVID-19 outbreak, because Trump wasn’t tough enough on China’s leaders. The commercial mocks Trump’s praise for Xi Jinping and is filled with supposedly damning images of Trump and Xi together. By contrast, it shows Biden vowing, “I would be on the phone with China making it clear: We are going to need to be in your country. You have to be open. You have to be clear. We have to know what’s going on.” In other words, Biden would boss the Chinese around.
This is a jingoistic fantasy. China is a rival superpower run by an authoritarian and fiercely nationalistic regime. Biden can’t force it to comply. When Beijing has given the United States valuable information about virus outbreaks in the past, it’s because American presidents spent time and money building joint U.S.-Chinese initiatives and took pains to make China’s leaders feel like equals. In 2009, Biden’s then-boss, Barack Obama, stood on a stage with the Chinese leader Hu Jintao in Beijing—in the kind of scene Biden mocks in his ad—and said the two governments should “build upon our mutual interests and engage on the basis of equality and mutual respect.” The two leaders announced that they would “deepen cooperation on global public health issues, including Influenza A (H1N1) prevention, surveillance, reporting and control.” As the Rand Corporation’s Jennifer Huang Bouey has noted, this cooperation hastened the development of an H1N1 vaccine. In suggesting that Biden could bludgeon China into submission—in a phone call, no less—the Biden campaign is peddling a lie about how public-health cooperation with China actually works.
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.
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.
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.