August 27 at 7:35 AM
THE BIG IDEA:
GREENVILLE, S.C.—Good morning from South Carolina, where I am about to cover a Donald Trump rally. The billionaire has peppered his stump speech, if you can call it that, with even harsher language about China since the country manipulated its currency to stimulate its struggling economy. Earlier this week, he said colorfully that he would downgrade Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Washington next month by serving him a Big Mac.
Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who has tried appealing to both the tea party and establishment wings of the GOP, went even further. He called on President Obama to cancel the visit altogether as retaliation for recent Chinese actions. Aiming to say something that would get him back in the conversation and make him look tough, Walker has instead faced a backlash and a battery of negative headlines.
The governor found himself on the defensive again yesterday. The Des Moines Register story about his latest visit leads with Walker arguing that “canceling an official state visit with the Chinese president wouldn’t harm Iowa’s trade interests with the country.” The piece notes that the Hawkeye State exported nearly $1 billion worth of products to China in 2014.
It is true that Walker’s comment won’t really turn off rank-and-file voters. The folks supporting Trump in the polls, who Walker would love to peel off, find his tough talk and lack of nuance refreshing. The Pew Global Attitudes Project found this spring that only 27 percent of Republicans view China favorably and 63 percent view the country unfavorably, Post pollster Peyton Craighill notes.
Where the China-bashing is hurting is with party elites. It has raised eyebrows among some of the major donors and foreign policy graybeards who have for months quietly expressed concerns about whether Walker is ready for prime-time, especially in a possible race against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Walker was mocked after a donor conference this spring when he said that Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air-traffic controllers was the most significant foreign policy decision of his lifetime.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is an example of someone who doesn’t welcome the tough talk. While he wants a governor to win his state’s caucuses, he has had a friendly relationship with Xi since he was a low-ranking government official visiting Iowa in 1985. He even introduced him to Walker two years ago. Branstad’s spokesman Jimmy Centers didn’t defend Walker when asked by my colleague Jenna Johnson, stressing the importance of the state’s relationship with the country.
Tellingly, none of the other leading Republican candidates—Trump aside—has followed Walker’s lead.
- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal even rebuked him. “The answer isn’t to refuse to meet,” spokeswoman Shannon Dirmann told the 202. “What good does that do? We’re surprised he said that, that’s weak. The answer is to confront China and tell them directly to stop pretending that everything is fine and to demand change. Tell China that their economic policies are absurd, and that we will no longer tolerate their acts of cyber terror and currency manipulation.”
- Asked what John Kasich thought of trying to cancel the state dinner, a spokesman for the Ohio governor replied: “We haven’t said anything like that…”
- A Marco Rubio spokesman said they will address the China question during a big speech here in South Carolina tomorrow. In New Hampshire yesterday, the senator seemed to telegraph a general theme when he told reporters that the GOP nominee needs to be “optimistic but realistic…” Watch for Rubio to promise a much more aggressive posture but also position himself as a level-headed, adult-in-the-room type.
To be sure, China is a tough issue for candidates. Voters overwhelmingly want a hard line. The country has been more aggressive militarily, especially in the South China Sea and, of course, stands accused of the massive cyberattack that stole the personnel records of millions of federal employees. This is one of the rare issues at the intersection of economics and national security — which consistently rank as the top two voter worries this year.
Finally, the debate over China will only heat up as the state dinner approaches. National Security Adviser Susan Rice is visiting Beijing tomorrow and Saturday to lay the groundwork for the trip. A White House statement said “she will underscore the United States’ commitment to building a more productive relationship between our two countries as well as discuss areas of difference.” Recall that last November, when Obama visited Xi in Beijing, the two announced a major agreement to reduce carbon emissions, as well as plans to extend business and tourist visas.