By emphasizing China’s coronavirus connection, Trump hurts Biden and splits Democrats. Each day makes China’s culpability for coronavirus clearer; simultaneously, Trump’s political advantage for highlighting this grows. By underscoring China’s responsibility, Trump pins Biden with his worst campaign gaffe, while forcing Democrats to either be tough on Biden or soft on Beijing.
America already broadly disliked China before coronavirus. Its trade policies beggared the U.S. through IP theft, dumping, and favoritism at home. Its anti-democratic policies and suppression of minorities were politically and morally repugnant. Its aggressive foreign policy made it a military threat.
Coronavirus now takes America’s view of China to depths unseen in decades. The question is not about China’s culpability, but about its extent. With over 70,000 deaths, 1.2 million confirmed cases, and 30 million unemployed, Americans are justifiably angry at what was, at the very least, China’s coverup.
He must explain last year’s faux pas, and Biden explaining anything is a recipe for disaster.
Already more than justified in calling China out, President Trump has held back only in deference to his signature trade victory there. But his domestic political advantage now increasingly outweighs his former hesitance.
America has reached its China verdict. Being on the right side of lopsided issues is where smart politicians go — it is better to lead than follow. With China and coronavirus, Trump can go there; Biden cannot.
It seems impossible to pick a worst soundbite from Biden’s litany. Still, the one with biggest negative repercussions is undoubtedly last year’s in Iowa, when he inexplicably claimed China was “not competition” for America: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man … I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.”
Biden was wrong then and is proved more so daily. Coronavirus adds an exclamation mark to that conclusion.
Trump hitting China forces Biden back on his ill-considered comment. Biden must either agree with Trump and disagree with his prior self, or he must disagree with Trump and America in order to stay consistent with his past.
There is no good outcome for Biden here. He has no choice but to join in condemning China. That means he must explain last year’s faux pas, and Biden explaining anything is a recipe for disaster.
Trump attacking China also forces Democrats into Biden’s dilemma. They either must contradict public opinion or their nominee. Again, the answer is a no-brainer, but for Democrats it is also no-win. Adding insult to injury, taking the obvious anti-China route also means siding with Trump.
Further splitting an already divided party only benefits Trump and Republicans. This split also falls on their most sensitive fault line running between their ascendant left and dwindling moderate wings.
For most, there is clear connection between China’s authoritarian communism and its gross mishandling of the global coronavirus crisis. Yet it’s not an easy one to make for Democrats eager to curry favor with their left — a left not inherently predisposed against China’s communist regime. Losing support from the left means Democrats losing desperately needed November voters.
Hitting China for coronavirus now does so much good for Trump, and so much bad for Democrats.
China was already a bad actor in American eyes. Coronavirus now makes them a pariah, and only sinking further with America’s mounting costs in deaths and dollars.
Recounting China’s role also undermines Democrat attempts to stick the Trump administration with responsibility. Although seemingly a lifetime ago, Trump’s impeachment trial was just months ago. Democrats have eagerly pursued investigations against every facet of the administration. Coronavirus presents a tempting target — as evidenced by the Democrat House’s recent creation of a coronavirus oversight committee — if not blocked.
Finally, calling out China puts Biden and Democrats in terrible spots at terrible times. Biden cannot follow Trump in blaming China without resurrecting his China dismissal of last year. He cannot maintain his earlier denial now, but he also cannot renounce it without flip-flopping.
The Democrats’ choice is no less excruciating. They must choose between implicitly opposing their nominee or explicitly appeasing China. Both carry serious ramifications for party unity.
The coronavirus story is not going away. As China’s involvement increasingly manifests, Trump’s political opportunity only grows, and with it the Democrats’ vulnerability.
J. T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.
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