Romney’s Cynical China Strategy

Florida Senator Marco Rubio recently appeared for coffee at Bloomberg View in New York and made a good impression, if you don’t count his failure to identify even one tax loophole or deduction he would eliminate to help pay for a 20-percent reduction in tax rates. But he didn’t make any news until he was on the way out and a bunch of reporters from other news organizations were out of earshot.

I asked Rubio if he thought it was a good idea for Mitt Romney to declare China a currency manipulator on day one of his presidency, as the former governor of Massachusetts has repeatedly promised to do.

“No, not really,” Rubio said. “It could kick off a trade war that would be bad for the economy.” As he walked away from the table, he added, “I agree with Obama on that one.”

Rubio is right, of course, as anyone in the business community — including Romney — understands. The only reason Romney hasn’t been pilloried for this bit of shameless pandering is that nobody expects him to keep his promise.

This view that he will back off immediately after taking the oath is simultaneously cynical and politically ignorant. Romney’s promise is so specific — and so lacking in escape hatches — that it’s a sure bet he would feel obliged to keep it.

Otherwise, within 24 hours of his swearing in he would be pilloried by the press for breaking a major promise. If he immediately confirmed all of the Democrats’ attacks about his lack of constancy, his honeymoon would be over before it even started.

Presidents break campaign promises all the time, of course, but there is no history of a president backing off a day-one promise.

President Bill Clinton had to retreat from a campaign promise to crack down on China in the wake of Tiananmen Square, vaguely suggesting he might not let China obtain most-favored-nation status. But the promise was so open-ended and unspecific that it was easily skirted.

Similarly, candidate Barack Obama promised in 2008 to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but not on day one, and, after a lopsided vote in Congress in the late winter of 2009, it was not something he could do unilaterally.

By contrast, each of the executive orders Obama promised to sign on day one, including banning torture and loosening secrecy standards, he signed. Had he not done so, he would have been accused of breaking pledges even before the inaugural scaffolding was down. The same would happen to Romney should he renege.

We all know that the Chinese do indeed manipulate their currency, and calling them out on various trade abuses — as Obama did on tires — is important. The U.S. government must push back on a variety of fronts to keep the pressure on for fair trade.

But officially designating China as a currency manipulator — a formal finding — would be seen as a declaration of trade war, which is in no one’s interest. If you don’t believe me, check with Mayor Michael Bell and the business community of Toledo, Ohio, where thousands of new jobs have been created through joint ventures between U.S. firms and the Chinese. Those jobs — and thousands of others — would immediately be at risk.

Romney knows this perfectly well, as do all of his friends and business associates. But unlike Rubio, he will say anything to try to gain a political advantage. Why this doesn’t seem to bother his supporters is beyond me.

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Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is the author of one book about Franklin D. Roosevelt and two about Barack Obama.