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10.21.10

China Invades the Midterms

The proliferation of China-themed campaign ads this year shows that voters are finally making the problem of U.S. debt a priority. John Avlon on why that’s a good thing.

China is surging as a grassroots buzzword in competitive districts, according to the Election Oracle, and the theme is popping up across campaign ads. John Avlon on why it's a good thing.

China has emerged as a key campaign issue in 2010, invoked by Democrats and Republicans alike.  But the anger isn’t just the outsourcing of jobs in this Great Recession—it’s the long-term threat to American sovereignty posed by the U.S. debt.

No less than 30 candidates across the country are running ads that negatively tie their opponent to China. On a trip to Ohio this week, my television was flooded with campaign ads, including a telling salvo against incumbent Congresswoman Mary Jo Kilroy, featuring Chinese money, Mao, and the red communist flag. Anti-China themes are also evident in late-inning videos from California and Nevada to Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Not coincidentally, these are races where The Daily Beast Election Oracle finds the term “China” surging in online digital grassroots conversation. In select House seats in Ohio (18-CD), Florida (12-CD), West Virginia (3-CD) and Alabama (5-CD), debates about China are making up more than 15 percent of the total online conversation. It’s more evidence of what Joe Klein found talking to people on his nationwide road-trip, recounted in a recent Time magazine cover story: “For every occasion they raised Afghanistan, they mentioned China 25 times.”

For Democrats like Joe Sestak and Barbara Boxer, associating Republican opponents Pat Toomey and Carly Fiorina with China is way of putting laissez-faire free-trade capitalism on trial, a tactic popular with the labor unions who are funding much of the last-minute election push and TV efforts. This reflects a growing neo-protectionist impulse that resonates in areas that have been economically decimated by the exodus of manufacturing jobs since the 1980s. 

For Republicans, distrust of China is a proxy for anger at unprecedented government spending under Obama that has nearly doubled the national debt. It is a core part of the Tea Party’s conservative populist protest message and has been from the beginning. And, of course, classic fiscal conservatives have been sounding the alarm about deficits and debt (especially when Democrats control the White House) for decades.

Debt is sometimes dismissed as a motivating factor around election time—it seems remote and abstract when people are anxious and angry about jobs. Nonetheless, the debt has consistently showed up at the top of policy polls at a time when many people are also expressing concern that the next generation might inherit a diminished American Dream. 

The debt has consistently showed up at the top of policy polls at a time when many people are also expressing concern that the next generation might inherit a diminished American Dream.

The two issues are entwined. The world’s largest debtor nation cannot indefinitely remain the world’s sole superpower. Debt disempowers nations by constraining their geo-strategic freedom. That’s why Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took the unprecedented step of calling the U.S. debt our "biggest national security threat."

The American people are smart and they have grown increasingly savvy about the implications of the national debt. In the last four years, the percent of Americans who understand that China loans more money to the U.S. than vice-versa has skyrocketed from 24 percent to 67 percent of the population, according to the Chicago Council’s “Global Views 2010” survey.  Sixty-six percent of respondents said that “reducing federal budget deficits” was the “most important factor in U.S. global competitiveness,” while 51 percent of Americans now consider U.S. debt to China a “critical threat.”

In an April 2010 national poll by the Mellman Group, “We are too deep in debt to China” led a list of 15 different concerns, including jobs being shipped overseas, the threat of terrorism, illegal immigration, and a faltering public education system. Likewise, a Rasmussen poll found that “an overwhelming majority of Americans (87 percent) are concerned about the level of U.S. debt now owned by China, including 61 percent who are “very concerned.” Just 9 percent are “not very or not at all concerned.” 

The Cold War was arguably the last time a major foreign power became an election-year issue in America.  It’s a sign of some progress that the anxiety now is not military conflict but economic competitiveness.  

But while Americans are still more likely to think that China’s economic rise will have both positive and negative effects on the United States, rather than just a purely negative impact, there is a conflict of great powers brewing. The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo should have served as a reminder to the Western world that China’s market Leninism is a competing economic model that comes without freedom. China’s cyberespionage is now a core part of their military and economic strategy. And the state-run media has taken to dismissing the United States as a “senile uncle [who] always overestimates his intelligence and obstinately believes he is the unchallenged player.”   

The most polite way to describe the U.S.-China relationship is that of “strategic competitors.”  But that politeness is part of the problem—you have to be polite to the person that owns your house. China’s ownership of U.S. debt will constrain our ability to criticize the ugly or immoral side of its expansionist ambitions.  It opens the door to a form of 21st-century economic warfare that can be initiated at a moment’s notice.

The good news is that there is an emerging bipartisan consensus that we need to take our trade deficit and national debt with China seriously. Voters are waking up to its real-world implications and see nothing less than a long-term existential threat.  Labor unions should consider extending their efforts at growth into China itself: Forget about Card Check—get to work unionizing a nation whose workers are still actively oppressed.

The emergence of China as an election-year issue signifies a new era in American politics, where international economics begin to enter the dinner table conversation.  It is a recognition that there is a new great power on the rise that cannot be assumed to have our best interests in mind.  We need a clear strategy to deal with this shift in the global balance of power because being in debt threatens to put America in a defensive position that is contrary to real leadership.  The challenge for Congress going forward will be to resist the temptation to simply demagogue the debt every two years, and to take the difficult steps to actually do something about it. 

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.