Democratic candidates are on the run. In ad after ad, debate after debate, they’re being hammered for “voting 97 percent with Barack Obama” and supporting “the policies of this failed president.” They need a boogeyman. And they’ve found one: China.
Exploiting American anxiety about Asia is a long, unsavory tradition. As the Soviet Union unraveled in the 1980s and 1990s, many candidates turned their xenophobic fire from Russia to Japan and Korea. The threat was no longer military; it was economic. Now the enemy is China, whose economy, by some measures, has just surpassed that of the United States. Democrats, tired of looking soft on ISIS or Ebola, are talking tough on China. And they’re trying to make Republicans look un-American.
Liberals don’t like to think of themselves as xenophobic. They don’t believe in war or global domination. But they do believe in government intervention in the economy to protect the little guy. And in a global economy, the little guy is often willing to believe that the chief threat to his livelihood is a foreign power. A few months ago, when Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia was asked in a debate about subsidies for American exports, he answered with the language of war. “I’m not going to unilaterally disarm American businesses,” said Warner. “And Lord knows, when you go against the Chinese, it’s not a level playing field.”
The most aggressive anti-China campaign in this election cycle is the one in Kentucky against Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican. Last year, a liberal PAC, Progress Kentucky, tweeted a link to an article that accused McConnell’s Chinese-American wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, of making “racist remarks about U.S. workers.” The tweet said: “This woman has the ear of @mcconnellpress— she’s his #wife. May explain why your job moved to #China!” The PAC later deleted its tweet. But the anti-China message has been picked up by McConnell’s Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes.
In one ad, the Grimes campaign has chastised McConnell for working to “create jobs for China” instead of Kentucky. Another ad says he “toasted the Chinese vice president for ‘China’s great achievements.’ ” Grimes says McConnell “led a filibuster against cracking down on China’s currency manipulation” and “repeatedly voted to give special trade benefits to China.” She even faults him for saying that “by engaging economically with the PRC, the U.S. can support and promote continued economic development in China.”
Grimes has targeted China’s leaders and policies. But other Democrats have appealed directly to anger at Chinese workers. Two weeks ago, during a debate for Congress in Illinois, Rep. Cheri Bustos accused her Republican opponent of supporting tax breaks that reward companies for shipping jobs overseas. Bustos described how a doomed American worker met her foreign usurpers: “I know the woman who had to scrape the tape off the floor—after she trained the Chinese replacements who were taking her job—to get that plant ready for closure.”
Every state has its own angle. “Idaho has lost 18,000 jobs to China,” said Nels Mitchell, the state’s Democratic senatorial nominee, in an Oct. 6 debate. Two weeks later, in a debate in New Hampshire, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen was offered the chance to question Republican challenger Scott Brown. “Here in New Hampshire, we have the highest percentage of jobs that have been shipped to China of any state in the country,” Shaheen told Brown. “So why in the world would you support outsourcing American jobs overseas?”
The China threat puts a backbone of nationalism in Democrats’ appeals for domestic spending, as the Soviet Union did in the 1950s and 1960s. For Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, it’s an argument for funding education: “We need a first-rate education system” because kids in Arkansas “are literally competing with people in China and India and Europe and Mexico.” For Gov. Jerry Brown of California, it’s an argument for mass transit: “Fifteen other countries have high-speed rail. China, which on a per capita basis is poorer than America … just built 5,000 miles.” For Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, it’s an argument for highway construction—“the investments we need to make in order for America to be competitive again against other countries, like China and others, that are investing heavily in world-class, modern infrastructure.” For Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democratic senatorial nominee in Iowa, it’s an argument for a government-guided manufacturing strategy. “In 2000, U.S. manufactured exports were three times those of China,” says Braley. “In 2012, China’s manufactured exports were 58 percent greater than the United States’.”
China also gives Democrats a way to neutralize traditional Republican issues. For Warner, China makes the case against budget cuts: “We have to be very guarded with the Chinese. … Education, infrastructure, and research and development—if we are going to have a strong America economically, that’s not where we should be cutting.” For Pryor, China makes the case against tax cuts. He says his Republican challenger’s pledge not to raise taxes is really a pledge “to protect special tax breaks for corporations that outsource our jobs,” such as “tax breaks for moving expenses when they pack up and leave for China and Mexico.”
Several Democrats have used China to deflect Republican demands for the Keystone pipeline. NextGen Climate Action, a liberal PAC, ran an ad that declared:
Chinese government-backed interests have invested $30 billion in Canadian tar sands development. And China just bought one of Canada’s largest producers. They’re counting on the U.S. to approve TransCanada’s pipeline to ship oil through America’s heartland and out to foreign countries like theirs.
The ad was bogus. Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s expert fact checker, found that even if all Asian-owned companies were combined, they accounted for only 7 percent of the oil production. But that hasn’t deterred Democratic candidates from trying the same pivot. Three weeks ago, Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota was chastised by his Republican opponent, Mike McFadden, for opposing Keystone. Franken replied:
I have voted that if we build the Keystone pipeline, that it will be built with American steel. Mr. McFadden, after our first debate, said that it would be OK with him if the Keystone pipeline were made with Chinese steel, if we’re a little bit cheaper. Now, those are Minnesota jobs. I fight for Minnesota jobs. … When I see a pipeline, I want it built with American steel.
This week, Amanda Curtis, the Democratic senatorial nominee in Montana, hit back even harder when her Republican opponent, Rep. Steve Daines, endorsed the pipeline and accused Democrats of a war on coal. Curtis portrayed the pipeline as an outsourcing bonanza:
Congressman Daines spent much of his time in the private sector building up jobs in China. He spent much of his time in Congress incentivizing corporations who ship their profits and our jobs to China. And so it’s no surprise that he would fight so hard to ship our oil and our refining jobs to China. And we should be demanding the high-paying, permanent jobs that would come from building the infrastructure to refine it here.
Republicans have done their share of Asia-baiting over the years. They’ve played on fears of competition (Chinese people saying, “We take your jobs”) and depicted the Chinese army marching in front of the United States Capitol. In Kentucky, a PAC supporting McConnell has countered the left’s China-baiting with its own flier in which Asians appear to thank Obama for attacking the American coal industry. A few Republicans have mentioned China in the context of United States debt (“borrowing from China”) or the futility of unilateral restrictions on carbon emissions (“The Chinese are building coal-fired plants”). But I’ve yet to see a 2014 Senate race in which a Republican is using China the way Democrats are using it. Republicans don’t need a foreign boogeyman. They have Obama.
I’ve seen only one statewide campaign in which China has been discussed in positive terms. It’s in Oregon, where China is seen more as an export market than as a jobs threat. The challenger, Dennis Richardson, says Gov. John Kitzhaber hasn’t done enough to suck up to China. Wouldn’t you know it, Richardson is the Republican.