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The Law of the Worst: What China-Watchers Need to Know About Presidential Campaigns

Nov 25, 2011
  • Stephen Hess

    Senior fellow emeritus in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution

After eleven televised debates, on November 12 in Spartanburg, S.C., the platoon of contenders for the Republican presidential nomination finally got around to foreign policy, a subject not rated high in polls of what concerns voters, and hence not of major interest to those soliciting their support. After disposing of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the combat situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan and foreign aid, the ethics and practicality of waterboarding, the debate’s moderator said, “I’d like to change the subject a little bit to China,” and asked the candidates to comment on “China using cyber-attacks.”

Rick Perry: “I would suggest [this is] one of the great issues that will face the next President of the United States….I happen to think that the communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history if they do not change their virtues. It is important for a country to have virtues, virtues of honesty.”

Mitt Romney: “In order for them to have free and open access to the thing they want so badly, our markets, they have to play by the rules. They can’t hack into our computer system and steal from our government….And they also can’t manipulate their currency in such a way as to make their prices well below what they otherwise would be.”

“How do you affect that as commander in chief?”  

Romney: “Well number one, on day one, it’s acknowledging something which everyone knows, they’re a currency manipulator. And on that basis, we also go before the WTO and bring an action against them as a currency manipulator.” [The consensus among experts is that the WTO probably doesn’t have this authority.] 

By coincidence, on the same day that Republicans were engaged in China-bashing in South Carolina, the presumptive Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, was in Honolulu beginning a nine-day Asian trip that he hoped would reset the U.S. foreign policy agenda. But the political calendar is not going to leave much room for high hopes. As in the children’s game of scissors cuts paper, politics cuts policy.   

Enter the Law of the Worst. 

In 1972 the new managing editor of Foreign Policy, Richard Holbrooke, commissioned me to write an essay on “Foreign Policy and Presidential Campaigns” in which this was my key paragraph: “It is Daniel P. Moynihan’s widely shared opinion that ‘elections are rarely our finest hour.’ As an iron rule, issues in a political campaign are oversimplified, overdramatized, and overcatastrophized. Reasonable discussion, as Theodore White has written, may be ‘the dream of unblooded political scientists,’ but in practice there should be no expectation that presidential campaigns are or will be appropriate vehicles for objective, thorough, balanced review of public policy. While this applies to both domestic and international issues, the latter are made even more inscrutable by their complexities, secrecy restrictions, and the limited knowledge of most voters. Thus it can be stated as a general law of campaigning: All issues are badly handled; foreign policy issues are handled worst.”  [Fall 1972, p. 8.]  Forty years later the paragraph still stands.

Yet foreign policy has been dominant in most elections going back to 1952 when Dwight Eisenhower pledged “I shall go to Korea.” Forward through the Cold War, Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, questions of national security boil down to which candidate is more apt to get us in or keep us out of war. Or as rephrased by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, “Who do you want to be sittin’ beside that hot line when the telephone goes ting-a-ling and the voice on the other end says ‘Moscow calling’?” Campaigns are blunt and efficient in registering what voters’ support or oppose. However, there is no basic foreign policy issue on the horizon to be tested in the 2012 election.

Another reason for foreign policy/national security in campaigns is that there have been candidates with long experience on Senate Foreign Relations or Armed Services Committees or in the military who insist on airing their views, even when sometimes it is not in their best interest.  Put Barry Goldwater, John Kerry, and John McCain in this category.   This only fits Jon Huntsman in 2012.

Then, too, there are unanticipated events (Hungarian uprising and Suez Canal crisis in 1956) and candidates’ gaffes (Gerald Ford on Poland in 1976). The unexpected usually helps the incumbent who, unlike the challenger, can respond.

As we await the evidence, starting with early January contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, this appears to be the configuration of the 2012 election:

The Republican nominee will be Mitt Romney or ABR (strategists’ shorthand for “Anyone but Romney.”) Obama’s staff expects it will be Romney.

Foreign policy discussion will be marginal to outcome. There will be the mandatory candidates’ position papers and ultimately one post-Labor Day TV debate. But these will be more like checking off the boxes of what journalists, scholars, and special interest groups expect.

The one place where Obama’s approval numbers are strong is foreign affairs. Consequently, there is not much for the opposition candidate to gain by stressing this area, although there will be saber-rattling pressure from elements in the conservative movement.

The Number One issue is jobs. The unemployment rate hovers around nine percent. There really isn’t an Issue Number 2. So this will be that rare election without a dominant foreign policy presence.

And yet!  China is about jobs! Main Street Americans make the connection. If they don’t, they will be reminded. The National Journal, for instance, describes Romney as “trying to out-hawk the hawks on China trade.”

China will not be able to escape The Law of the Worst. For those with a China-US Focus, my one word of advice for successfully living through the 2012 presidential campaign is fortitude.

Stephen Hess is Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Brookings Institution. His most recent books are What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect (2008) and American Political Cartoons: The Evolution of a National Identity, 1754-2010 (2010)

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