By Naftali Bendavid, The Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2010
China is emerging as a bogeyman this campaign season, with candidates across the American political spectrum seizing on anxieties about the country’s growing economic might to pummel each other on trade, outsourcing and the deficit.
In television ads, China is framed as an ominous foreign influence in a time of economic anxiety, often accompanied by red flags and communist-style stars and sometimes by Asian-sounding music. Democrats say Republicans support tax breaks that reward companies for moving jobs to China; Republicans blame Democrats for a federal budget deficit they say forces the U.S. to borrow money from China.
“Candidates are looking to speak in a visceral way to the fears and concerns of voters about jobs,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. “Bashing China is safe.”
The heated rhetoric puts the White House in a bind. Administration officials often don’t mind Congress putting pressure on China, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner himself in a speech Wednesday offered a blunt critique of Beijing’s currency policy. But officials also worry that a confrontational approach could backfire.
Both nations may feel compelled by public opinion to engage in “an escalation of rhetoric that is going to be difficult to manage” after the election, said Charles Freeman, chairman of China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Wang Baodong, a spokesman for Beijing’s embassy in Washington, criticized candidates’ use of his country in campaign messages. “China is committed to promoting strong bilateral trade and economic cooperation, which brings about enormous benefit to the welfare of our two peoples,” Mr. Wang said. “So making China an issue in the elections or in any other forms is irrelevant and wrong-targeted.”
Mark Schauer, a Michigan Democrat facing a tough re-election fight, has aired an ad against his Republican rival saying, “Tim Walberg made it way too easy for companies to outsource our jobs to China.” Mr. Walberg said the ad was misleading and that he considered American products superior to Chinese ones.
In Ohio, Democratic Senate candidate Lee Fisher has focused on GOP opponent Rob Portman’s stint as a House member and as U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush. “Congressman Rob Portman knows how to grow the economy—in China,” said a recent Fisher ad.
The Portman campaign rejected these assertions, saying Mr. Portman fought to increase exports and was the first U.S. trade representative to take China to court and win.
Republicans, for their part, cited China in their recently released “Pledge to America.” “We now borrow 41 cents of every dollar we spend, much of it from foreign countries, including China, and leave the bill to our kids and grandkids,” it said, as it attacked Democrats for “unparalleled recklessness with taxpayer dollars.”
Warnings of foreign influence have often been a feature of U.S. elections, especially in times of economic insecurity. And there is little reason to believe the latest ads will have a long-term effect on U.S.-China relations. or on the fate of anti-China legislation, which has struggled in Congress.But with China on the rise, warnings about it seem to have a special resonance this campaign season. The House, with GOP support, passed a bill in September to penalize Beijing’s foreign-exchange practices. A few days earlier, Democrats unsuccessfully pushed a measure to end corporate tax deductions for expenses related to shifting jobs overseas.
Meanwhile, in West Virginia, an ad by Republican Spike Maynard against Rep. Nick Rahall featured Asian music and Chinese flags. It cited a Texas wind farm that reportedly planned to apply for federal stimulus funds while obtaining its windmills from China. “It’s on our jeans, even our children’s toys: ‘Made in China,’ ” the narrator said.
Democrats said the windmill project would have materials manufactured in the U.S. and that the operator hadn’t applied for stimulus funds.
A similar back-and-forth is unfolding in Virginia, where an ad by Republican State Sen. Robert Hurt accuses Rep. Tom Perriello (D., Va.) of voting to give tax breaks to foreign companies “creating jobs in China.”
That’s a reference to a portion of the stimulus package that gives tax breaks for green jobs. The Perriello campaign said Mr. Hurt’s pledge not to raise taxes means he’d oppose closing tax loopholes for companies that move jobs overseas.
About the author: Naftali Bendavid covers Congress and politics for The Wall Street Journal. Before coming to the Journal, he covered the White House and the Justice Department for the Chicago Tribune. Bendavid also spent five years as deputy Washington bureau chief for the Tribune, overseeing its coverage of government and politics. Bendavid has covered such stories as the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the Al Gore presidential campaign, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Supreme Court confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor.
Reprinted with kindly permission of The Wall Street Journal.