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China As Seen Through American Party Platforms

Stephen Hess, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
September 13, 2012
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In this rare moment when two great powers are in the midst of leadership succession, each seeks clues as to the other’s future intent. Strangely there is one obvious place to look that Beijing may have overlooked: The party platforms that were approved at the Republican and Democratic national conventions this summer.

Not surprising, perhaps. As John Boehner, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, recently asked reporters, “Have you ever met anyone who read the party platform? I’ve never met anyone.” He was probably joking. But could we be sure? Platforms are instruments of ridicule, as filled with bombast as the balloons that are swept from the convention floor.

Yet are they really so deserving of their bad reputation? “At least four studies have compared platform promises and the subsequent actions of presidents, each study spanning a minimum of seven presidencies,” I wrote in The Little Book of Campaign Etiquette (Brookings, 2000). “All reach the same conclusion. Presidents prefer to keep their word if only because it’s when they don’t that they get in trouble.” One of these studies concluded, “Only a tenth of the promises are completely ignored.”

The platforms are written by committees composed of two civic leaders from each state, who hold public hearings, and spend many hours in debate. Twice I have been involved in this process, and twice I emerged believing this was more than the window-dressing assessment that platforms are given in the media.

In 1960 as a young aide to President Eisenhower I was assigned to be the White House liaison to the platform committee; in 1976 I was the Republican platform’s editor-in-chief. In both cases I learned painfully how removed Washington could be from the party’s Main Street roots and how national leaders can lose sight of where their party is coming from.

The platform drafters are engaged in a collective bargaining process over the composition of the party. Its purpose is to tell voters what a party wants to do—if the party had full control and no strings attached. These conditions never exist, of course. Still, the documents they produce should be sufficient to tell attentive voters whether they fit better as a Republican or a Democrat.

If one candidate is the president, the drafters take their guidance from the White House, and the platform “points with pride.” It would be powerfully strange for a president’s platform to paint a picture in which the future does not look like an extension of the present. If the candidate is of the other party, the platform “views with alarm.” Nevertheless, for onlookers, whether interest groups, journalists, or countries, the platform points in the direction that the candidate’s party wishes him to travel if elected.

When comparing the two parties’ 2012 platforms, note the stark contrast in the language chosen by the Republicans and Democrats to describe their feelings about the People’s Republic of China. The question to consider is how much this reflects policy difference, or is this primarily a measure of Republican animosity—less important, but not unimportant?

Trade, 2012 Republican Platform:

“Some governments have used a variety of unfair means to limit American access to their markets while stealing our designs, patents, brands, know-how, and technology—the ‘intellectual property’ that drives innovation. The chief offender is China, which has built up its economy in part by piggybacking onto Western technological advances, manipulates its currency to the disadvantage of American exporters, excludes American products from government purchases, subsidizes Chinese companies to give them a commercial advantage, and invents regulations and standards designed to keep out foreign competition. The [Obama] Administration’s way of dealing with all these violations of world trade standards has been a virtual surrender.”

Trade, 2012 Democratic Platform:

“We remain committed to finding more markets for American-made goods—including using the Trans-Pacific Partnership between the United States and eight countries in the Asia-Pacific, one of the most dynamic regions of the world—while ensuring that workers’ rights and environmental standards are upheld, and fighting against unfair trade practices. We expanded and reformed assistance for trade-affected workers, and we demanded renewal of that help alongside new trade agreements.”

Currency, 2012 Republican Platform:

“Republicans understand that you can succeed in a negotiation only if you are willing to walk away from it. Thus, a Republican President will insist on full parity in trade with China and stand ready to impose countervailing duties if China fails to amend its currency policies....Until China abides by the WTO’s Government Procurement Agreement, the United States government will end procurement of Chinese goods and services.”

Currency, 2012 Democratic Platform:

“Both publicly and privately, the President has made clear to the Chinese government that it needs to take steps to appreciate its currency so that America is competing on a level playing field....The President is committed to continuing to fight unfair trade practices that disadvantage American producers and workers, including illegal subsidies, non-tariff barriers, and abuse of workers’ rights or environmental standards.”

Cooperation, 2012 Republican Platform:

“We will welcome the emergence of a peaceful and prosperous China, and we will welcome even more the development of a democratic China. Its rulers have discovered that economic freedom leads to national wealth. The next lesson is that political and religious freedom leads to national greatness....We welcome the increase in trade and education alliances with the U.S. and the opening of Chinese markets to American companies.”

Cooperation, 2012 Democratic Platform:

“The President is committed to continuing efforts to build a cooperative relationship with China, while being clear and candid when we have differences. The world has a profound interest in the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China, but China must also understand that it must abide by clear international standards and rules of the road....President Obama will continue to seek additional opportunities for cooperation with China, including greater communications between our militaries.”

Taiwan, 2012 Republican Platform:

“We salute the people of Taiwan, a sound democracy and economic model for mainland China. Our relations must continue to be based upon the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act. America and Taiwan are united in our shared belief in fair elections, personal liberty, and free enterprise. We oppose any unilateral steps by either side to alter the status quo in the Taiwan Straits on the principle that all issues regarding the island’s future must be resolved peacefully, through dialogue, and be agreeable to the people of Taiwan. If China were to violate those principles, the U.S., in accord with the Taiwan Relations Act, will help Taiwan defend itself. We praise steps taken by both sides of the Taiwan Strait to reduce tension and strengthen economic ties. As a loyal friend of America, Taiwan has merited our strong support, including free trade agreements status, as well as the timely sale of defensive arms and full participation in the World Health Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, and other multilateral institutions.” This is the same plank that appeared in the 2008 Republican platform, updated only with the one sentence, “We praise steps taken by both sides...”

Taiwan, 2012 Democratic Platform:

“We remain committed to a one China policy, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues that is consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.” These words also appeared in the Democrats’ 2008 platform, but in 2012 they are incorporated in a broader context, including “reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula” and “countering proliferation in Iran.”

Given differences in how the two platforms are constructed, it is harder to isolate proposals on trade, currency, and cooperation without stumbling over relative emphasis. My effort here should be viewed as rough guidance. The full documents should be consulted.

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How much guidance can party platforms provide? Surely they are somewhere in the mix. But platforms are nonbinding on the candidates. And Mitt Romney had his own China policy even before there was a Republican platform. On his first day in the White House, he announced, he would label Beijing a “currency manipulator” if China continued to refuse to float its currency.

Moreover, one school of thought contends that striped of the foliage of campaign speeches and platforms, the foreign policies of Mitt Romney are more like those of Barack Obama than he wishes to admit. Marvin Kalb, when recently moderating a Brookings program on “The Obama and Romney Foreign Policy Agendas,” said of the Republican spokesperson, “Time and again, [Rich] Williamson, in gesture and comment, tried to convey differences with Obama—in words, yes, but in substance, no. He even ended up congratulating Obama’s policy towards India and China, basically because the President, he said, has chosen to follow [George W.] Bush’s opening to India and emphasis on human rights in China.”

In 1968 presidential candidate Richard Nixon declared, “I would not recognize Red China now and I would not agree to admitting it to the UN and I wouldn’t go along with those well-intentioned people that said, ‘Trade with them because that may change them.’ Because doing it now would only encourage them, the hardliners in Peking.” In 1972 President Nixon went to Beijing and shook hands with Chairman Mao. Conclusion: Predicting the future from the entrails of the American election process, as Theodore Roosevelt once said in another context, is as difficult as trying to nail currant jelly to the wall.

A veteran staffer of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and an advisor to Presidents Ford and Carter, Stephen Hess focuses on the presidency, the news media, and the political culture of Washington. 

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