Recently, Joe Biden has been doing and saying some slightly odd things. There were some flip-flops on the Hyde Amendment that seemed to cause consternation. He has repeatedly suggested that he will be able to work with a post-Trump GOP, suggesting that his victory would lead to a fever breaking within the Grand Old Party. None of this has really dented his front-runner status for 2020, although it is difficult to argue that it has strengthened it either. Mostly, one can chalk these things up to Biden’s being Biden.
There is one substantive area, however, where Biden genuinely seems to stand out from the pack, and that is his position on China. In Iowa last month, Biden said, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man!… They’re not competition for us.” More recently, as Politico’s Nahal Toosi reported, Biden told a New Hampshire audience: “Our workers are literally three times as productive as workers … in Asia. So what are we worried about?”
As Toosi noted last week, President Trump’s campaign has been eager to castigate Biden over his comments playing down the China threat. But “several current and former Biden aides said his recent rhetoric calling fears of China’s rise overblown was no gaffe. They say Biden relishes going to battle with Trump over China, certain that his message of confidence in American might will prevail over Trump’s alarmist rhetoric and tariff-driven trade war with Beijing.”
This is intriguing for a number of reasons. For one thing, not panicking on China is a legitimately interesting policy tack. It runs counter to the current bipartisan consensus in Washington. Furthermore, there is a valid case to be made that the current #OMGChina! approach to the Middle Kingdom is both hyperbolic and counterproductive.
Second, it certainly makes Biden sound different from, say, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) when it comes to questions on trade. It has been disturbing to see so many Democratic Party candidates sound way too much like Trump even though the polling data suggests that protectionism is not really a winning policy position. As the New York Times’s Neil Irwin noted last week, there is a way to bash Trump on trade by simultaneously suggesting he’s anti-market and anti-worker: “You can imagine a trade pitch from the 2020 Democratic nominee that goes something like this: ‘I’ll work with allies to keep pressure on China over its unfair practices — but not with open-ended tariffs on thousands of goods that are a tax on American consumers and invite retaliation against American farmers.’ ”
Sure enough, the China portion of Biden’s speech in Iowa on Tuesday sounded awfully similar to Irwin’s hypothesized pitch:
While Trump is pursuing a damaging and erratic trade war, without any real strategy, China is positioning itself to lead the world in renewable energy.
While Trump is attacking our friends, China is pressing its advantage all over the world.
So you bet I'm worried about China — if we keep following Trump's path.
But the reason I’m optimistic, and the point I’ve been making for years is —
IF we do what we need to do here at home,
IF we stand up for American interests,
IF we invest in our people, live our values, and work with our partners — We can out-compete anyone.
Biden slightly refined his position with this speech, suggesting that China does pose a threat. But he maintained that China’s challenge would be easily surmountable if the United States stops pursuing self-defeating policies.
In recent presidential cycles, a leading candidate makes a foreign policy statement that gets branded as a gaffe by everyone but the candidate and his staff. In 2008, it was Barack Obama saying that he would be willing to sit down with the leader of Iran. In 2016, it was Trump saying. ... I don’t know how to finish that sentence; he said so many things that were widely viewed as gaffes. In both instances, however, what was originally viewed as a mistake turned out to be a way for that candidate to distinguish himself at the primary stage.
I have no idea if Biden’s position on China will fall into that category, but I am intrigued when a candidate zags after everyone else zigs. If nothing else, this is a meaty issue for debate.