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Takeaways from the U.S. Midterms

Dec 02, 2022
  • Zhong Yin

    Research Professor, Research Institute of Global Chinese and Area Studies, Beijing Language and Culture University

Although the last of the votes are still being counted in some places after the midterm elections in the United States, the current results for both the Senate and House of Representatives spell doom for power structure of the upcoming 118th Congress. With the Senate remaining under Democratic control and Republicans capturing a narrow majority in the House, the basic tone of divided power has already been set.

China, which has been labeled as the primary competitor of the U.S. — and which affects both U.S. domestic and overseas policies — is interwoven deeply within American politics. Thus the new congressional power structure and its behavior patterns will greatly influence the way the U.S. deals with China in the years to come.

To begin with, the election results herald some new elements in U.S. politics and policies. Bipartisan political differences will be further aggravated, with domestic struggles becoming even worse. Both parties experienced only modest victories in the election, so neither will play a predominant role in future. President Joe Biden and his administration will face many more policy constraints. With the 2024 general election now in sight, fights between the two parties will become even fiercer.

Former president (and now candidate) Donald Trump has already been accused of several criminal acts, while Biden may find himself targeted for impeachment by House Republicans.

Making matters worse, a divided Congress may also amplify the internal differences long entrenched within the two major parties. Biden may feel further backlash from the extreme left-wing of his own party, while Trump is being blamed by many Republicans for his “unhelpful” influence in the midterm election. This also weakens his political standing as he runs for office again.

Even though Biden outperformed expectations and will continue to enjoy some advantages in governance with the aid of a Democrat-controlled Senate in such fields as foreign policy and judicial and executive appointments, he also must be prepared for possible Republican roadblocks on such issues as economic recovery and the debt ceiling, over which the House has a larger say. 

The change of the underlying political dynamic in the U.S. political ecosystem as reflected by this election also needs to be addressed, if one wants to decode the state of U.S. politics and get clues about the momentum of the general election in 2024.

On one hand, U.S. politics seems to have returned to “the middle course,” which is well-illustrated by the Republican failure to mount a “red wave” at the ballot box, despite vigorous support of their candidates by Trump and issues such as high inflation and Biden’s alleged “failure” in Afghanistan. U.S. voters appear to be fed up with Trump’s extremism. The poor showing of candidates endorsed by Trump is a clear case in point. In the years to come, the public may prefer moderate positions rather than radical changes, putting Trump’s future electability in jeopardy.

On the other hand, a new generation of leaders is rising. Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that she would step down as House speaker marks the end of an epoch in congressional politics and ushers in a new era imbued with new faces in both parties, including Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, whose prospects of becoming speaker are high but not certain. Coupled with this is the strengthening of a trend in the U.S. electorate, starting from as early as 2012, that the voting rate of young people is rising and leaning decisively toward Democrats. While Republicans are still enjoying advantages among the white working class, well-educated, ethnic groups and females continue to favor Democrats. The underlying configuration of the electorate signals a polarization of U.S. politics in the future. 

However, it’s almost a cliche that China has become a topic of bipartisan consensus since Trump’s time. No matter the structure of the U.S. Congress, China, as the central theme of U.S. foreign policy (and even domestic politics) will not change. Yet, with Republicans controlling the House, Biden will have to cope with even tougher internal pressure to confront China.

Republicans say they will accelerate their effort to pass the Taiwan Policy Act as soon as possible and set up a China committee to investigate the origin of COVID-19. McCarthy has also expressed his intention to visit Taiwan in 2023. 

With low public approval ratings on China and a congress that has intentionally turned China into a scapegoat for domestic politics, Biden will have to mitigatte the harshness if he expects to win support from China on climate and North Korea. Unfortunately, the two political parties in the U.S. agree on such issues as protecting U.S. technical dominance and boosting defense, which means that in the future the nature of an already cold Sino-U.S. relationship could become even worse.

On the other hand, however, China may feel a little at ease for several reasons:

First, a more divided and polarized America may be regarded as normal for U.S.-championed “democracy,” yet it’s an absolute liability in Chinese’s eyes. Basically Sino-U.S. rivalry is about the relative strengths and weaknesses of each other’s political and social systems, and China is confident on that score. It’s hard to expect success for Biden in revitalizing his country’s national base of industry and technology given the coming divided Congress and a grinding House.

Second, U.S. political dynamic's return to the middle will help stabilize the Sino-U.S. relationship, with a more predictable future and rational way of handling things. The fading Trump factor is also a blessing.

Third, the success of Biden and the Democrats in this election also helps bilateral relations, since China, although not wholly content, is willing to accept Biden’s words — that the two countries should seek ways to cooperate and to manage competition responsibly.

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