Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign is expanding its months of back-channel outreach to Republicans, with a new goal to hit President Donald Trump on one of his signature issues: China.
Team Biden has recently launched a new public effort to attack Trump on the trade deal he made with Chinese President Xi Jinping—a pact that the Democrats say fails to compel Beijing to buy significantly more American goods. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, hawkish Republican policy experts on China—people who, until recently, were in Trump’s greater orbit—are connecting with members of the Biden campaign.
While China has ramped up its agricultural purchases in recent weeks, trade data shows Beijing is still behind its commitments under the deal it signed with the Trump administration. Analysts say that while the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the flow of goods between the two countries, it does not fully explain the gap.
In anticipation of the possibility that the deal continues to unravel, Republicans, some of whom have advised the current administration on China policy, are looking to the Biden camp to offer not only their support to the Democratic candidate but also their informal guidance on ways to formulate a tough economic posture toward Beijing.
“The deal was bad from the beginning. No one thought it was going to make China do anything,” said one Republican who has spoken with members of the Biden team in recent weeks. “Now all there is left to do is for the administration to pull out of the deal. There’s more potential with Biden for a new slate... to start the trade policy from scratch. And to do it better.”
Three individuals who work for conservative think tanks in Washington with hawkish approaches to China told The Daily Beast that they’ve been informally speaking with members of the Biden team in recent weeks about the failures of the trade deal, particularly the lack of enforcement mechanisms and its inability to hold Beijing accountable for things like cyber attacks and intellectual property theft. Other Republicans close to the Biden campaign privately point to a range of ongoing ways Team Biden is trying to preemptively plan around any surprise moves Trump may pull ahead of November, including on foreign policy.
The conversations highlight the extent to which Republicans, some of whom have supported Trump in the past, are so frustrated with the U.S.-China trade deal and the administration’s efforts to hold Beijing accountable that they are willing to offer counsel to the Democratic nominee.
“This deal was a mistake from the start. China was never going to comply and China was always going to buy more U.S. agriculture as a simple necessity,” said Gordon Chang, a hawkish China author and analyst who appears frequently on Fox News. Chang, a Daily Beast contributor, is not one of the Republicans in conversation with the Biden team. “But the future of the U.S. is not selling more soybeans to China, it’s about protecting U.S. intellectual property. And China is still stealing it.”
The trade pact may not even be the most pressing issue in the Trump administration’s China portfolio. Chang said the White House has other, far more “dangerous” Chinese behavior to deal with, including Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong.
For the Biden team, the administration’s handling of the trade deal has “plunged American manufacturing into a recession” and “devastated the heartland with skyrocketing farm bankruptcies,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesperson.
“The costs of Donald Trump's selling every American out to China are so historically unprecedented and infuriating that experts from both parties are sounding the alarm about us having been taken to the cleaners while Chinese officials openly root for Trump's re-election," Bates said.
The former vice president’s China rhetoric has sharpened in the run-up to the election. Over a year ago during the Democratic primary, Biden attracted criticism for implying that China would not pose a considerable threat to the United States. “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man,” Biden said in May 2019 at a stop in Iowa, where he ultimately finished in fourth place in the caucus.
“I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us,” he said at the time.
At other points in the primary, candidate Biden also had to brush off months-long attacks on his son, Hunter Biden, from Trump and Republican allies who accused him without evidence of acting as a conduit to influence his father while serving as a board member on a Chinese-backed financial company. (In October, Hunter Biden said he was stepping down from the board.)
“Biden would be wise not to talk about China,” Chang said, adding that broaching the subject publicly would only bring up more criticism for his son’s financial dealings.
But moving into general election mode, the Biden campaign has chosen instead to amplify the contrasts. Biden’s team has publicly bashed Trump for the trade deal, running an ad recently, promoted on the Democratic National Committee’s website, that said the president lost the trade war he started.
“Trump said he’d get tough on China. He didn’t get tough—he got played. Trump lost a trade war that he started. Farmers bankrupted. Steel workers betrayed. And manufacturing, in a recession. Donald Trump lost,” the narration said.
Since then, the Biden team has also made an overt, persistent push to signal to voters that he supports American-made products. On Tuesday, Biden will address the fourth component of his “Build Back Better” plan in Wilmington, Delaware, a continuation of his “buy American” positioning and explanation of his economic vision against Trump.
Officials within the Biden team emphasize that the candidate’s China strategy goes beyond just attacking Trump. One senior foreign policy campaign official described to The Daily Beast a series of conversations that have taken place over the last several weeks about the need to develop a strategy in dealing with China that is rooted in a common agenda with America’s allies. Biden is interested in announcing enforcement actions against Beijing with those countries that have a similar outlook on trade, cyber and human rights, that official said. When pressed on how the Democrat would hold Beijing accountable for its malicious behavior, the senior campaign official said Biden would consider new sanctions and imposing other, additional measures to cut China off from the U.S. market.
The pre-planning of any major policy moves on China, of course, comes with a perceived electoral upside, as Biden continues to gain a significant polling advantage in battlegrounds that would be directly impacted by the country.
In Michigan, for example, a trio of recent surveys show the former vice president with leads over Trump above the margins of error, with one CNN poll giving Biden a whopping 13-point advantage. And Michigan is just one of the areas where prominent disaffected Republicans are spending strategic resources with the explicit goal to win the messaging war on behalf of Biden on trade, the economy, and jobs.
“Republicans and the Biden team are looking for various moments and opportunities where they can create the October surprise effect, before October,” said one longtime Republican operative familiar with high levels of the Biden campaign’s thinking. “The foreign policy space is one where given Biden’s track record as a senator, even more so than as vice president, there are a lot more Republicans who are comfortable with a Biden foreign policy.”
“Everybody’s been quietly moving behind the scenes,” the source added, noting that there are “a whole bunch of issues where they’re looking for folks to come out at the right time, sort of change the narrative.”
Kris Purcell, a co-chair of the newly formed GOP group 43 Alumni for Biden and a Bush White House alum, said he’s heard angst from Bush-aligned Republicans on everything from failing to respond to COVID-19 to “trampling the Constitution and the rule of law.” When foreign policy is mentioned in those circles, it’s in the broadest possible terms that speak to Trump’s “general national security incompetence,” he said.
On China, however, there is a sense among former Bush staffers who now support Biden’s bid that Trump’s trade policies are hurting voters in the middle of the country. “I think people just recognize that tariff policies in particular have been really damaging to farmers, they drive up costs,” Purcell said. “They know that Donald Trump is lying about saying all of these billions of dollars are coming into the Treasury.”
Dov Zakheim, a former under secretary of defense, told The Daily Beast that officials in Biden’s orbit have indeed been occasionally tapping national security officials from Republican circles for advice as the general election nears.
“The Biden campaign is clearly welcoming us,” Zakheim said. “That doesn’t mean they’re going to listen to everything we say or write.” Asked to elaborate on who “us” refers to, he offered some basic buckets, including national security hands who worked for former presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
Zakheim said he would have been willing to work closely with the Trump administration on China but that the president’s personal demeanor has made that nearly impossible to achieve. Still, he pointed to a few points where Team Trump was on the right path before the president veered off course.
“I think the administration is not completely wrong when it wants China to be part of the New START discussions,” he said, referring to arms control negotiations. “How they go about it is a different story. But they’re fundamentally not incorrect, I mean the Chinese are building up like crazy.”
When asked if Trump should pull out of the trade deal, however, Zakheim offered a quick no.
“I wouldn’t go ahead and cut any more deals with them right now, but I certainly wouldn’t want to walk away from the deal that has been cut,” he said. “What Trump has basically done is neuter us in different ways.”