This question answers itself, particularly concerning foreign policy. Fortunately for Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, events and his opponent are making this central to the 2020 election.
It is axiomatic that Americans’ preference regarding foreign policy is to have as little of it as possible. Hence most of this cycle’s Democratic presidential aspirants avoided reminding people that the world is a dangerous place. However, during the Feb. 25 debate in Charleston, S.C., Biden called China’s President Xi Jinping “a thug”: “This is a guy who doesn’t have a democratic-with-a-small-‘d’ bone in his body.”
Economist John Maynard Keynes supposedly said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” Biden, citing new facts, including aggression against Hong Kong’s freedom and “a million Uighurs” in “concentration camps,” has jettisoned his 2016 talk of his “enhanced cooperation” with Xi. In 34 of Biden’s 36 Senate years, he was on the Foreign Relations Committee, which he chaired for four years. President Trump’s foreign policy judgments have ranged from the contemptible (siding with Vladimir Putin at Helsinki in 2018 against U.S. intelligence officials regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election) to the preposterous (“There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea”) to the weird (he and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un “fell in love” after exchanging “beautiful letters”).
Trump now wants to make relations with China central to this campaign. His rhetorical skills — probably honed where they evidently peaked, on grammar school playgrounds — are emulated by his campaign in references to “Beijing Biden.” Biden can, however, turn China to his advantage by showing Trump what a policy of national strength would look like.
Biden served in the Senate for a decade with Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.), a liberal Cold Warrior who helped to make the Soviet Union’s human rights abuses costly to the regime. Today, Biden should speak forcefully against China’s arrests of Martin Lee, 81; Jimmy Lai, 71; Margaret Ng, 72; and other leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
Biden can practice what he preaches about bipartisanship by associating himself with Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton’s measured but insistent support for an investigation into the possible role of a Wuhan, China, research laboratory in the coronavirus outbreak. And with former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley’s call to require U.S. universities to disclose China’s funding of their professors and research. Cotton questions the visas for people from China to pursue postgraduate studies here in advanced science and technology fields: If Chinese students want to study “Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America. They don’t need to learn quantum computing and artificial intelligence from America.”
In February, a senior adviser for the World Health Organization’s director general praised China’s “bold approach” that “changed the course” of the epidemic. Indeed China did: Its first approach was to deny that there is human-to-human transmission. Biden should say that continued U.S. participation in this organization will be contingent upon its granting membership to Taiwan. Biden should also promise to discuss Taiwan’s exemplary response to covid-19 with Tsai Ing-wen in the Oval Office. She would be the first Taiwanese president welcomed in the United States since the 1979 “normalization” of U.S. relations with China.
By taking such steps, Biden can reconnect his party with its luminous post-1945 achievement. In that golden moment in the history of this nation’s engagement with the world, the talents of Dean Acheson, George Marshall, George Kennan, Averell Harriman, Robert Lovett, Charles Bohlen, John McCloy and others created the structures of free trade and collective military security that produced the related phenomena of global enrichment and Soviet collapse.
The winners of the past seven presidential elections (1992-2016) have averaged 330 electoral votes. If today’s state-by-state polls are correct, and if the election were held today, Biden would win 333 electoral votes: 232 from states Hillary Clinton won in 2016, plus those from Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina.
More than any particular policy outcome, Americans want a sense that their nation can regain the spring in its step, and can adopt a robust realism regarding the Leninist party-state that is its principal adversary. The first step toward a jauntier, safer America is to make the election a referendum on the right question: “Is this really the best we can do?”