It would be easy to dismiss President Joe Biden’s hopes for a return of bipartisanship as naive when one looks at the GOP record since he took office.
Most GOP legislators still refuse to denounce their cult leader’s infamous Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen, a lie he keeps promoting. They showed no serious interest in compromise on the critical COVID-19 relief bill, rightly Biden’s first priority. They are trying to curb voting rights in states across the country.
So you might think Biden’s push for bipartisanship is an irrelevance in this viciously partisan era. You would be dead wrong.
Not since the early post-World War II years, at the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, has bipartisanship in Congress been so strategically vital. This is especially true when it comes to foreign policy, and the deepening U.S. competition with China.
Back in the late 1940s, as the United States entered an unprecedented era of U.S.-Soviet standoff, President Harry Truman relied on cooperation from GOP Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Vandenberg had morphed from a pre-WWII isolationist into an internationalist who organized bipartisan support for Truman’s policy of isolating the Soviet communist regime. The senator asserted: “politics stops at the water’s edge.”
The current era is equally fraught as the United States enters an unprecedented era of competition with a rising China. But that competition is far more complex and daunting than the one with the Soviet Kremlin, whose nuclear arsenal disguised a faltering economy and collapsing state structures.
There are some encouraging signs that this new reality is penetrating GOP ranks.
“The place where there is the most possibility of bipartisanship i foreign policy,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told me in an interview this week, “is the place where it is most essential — crafting a strong and durable bipartisan consensus on how to compete with China, how to engage with China, how to confront China.”
China’s power is based not just on an expanding military, but on decades of stunning economic growth and major advances in technology. China’s leaders can only delight in domestic division that paralyzes America, and U.S. failure to match Chinese investment in key technologies.
Coons, who is close to Biden and consistently promotes bipartisan legislation, warns that Congress must now choose between two options when it comes to China.
One is for the GOP to keep playing the Trumpian game of gotcha.
Coons recalled an exchange with Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz during a Senate Foreign Relations committee discussion about confirming Biden’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Some senior Republicans, who were voting to confirm, praised her decades of experience, while noting concern at one speech she had given to a China-funded Confucius Institute at Savannah State University.
“Cruz immediately went after her and tried to turn that speech into ‘Biden is weak on China’,’ Coons related. “I said we have a choice to make. This approach may be good for TV or a Twitter feed, but I could have made the same speech on Trump. We could spend the next four years on who lost China.
“January 6 was a wake-up call that our country is too divided.” He added that such U.S. divisions are a gift to Xi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as they reveal an America too paralyzed to act.
Instead, says Coons, a successful China policy requires legislators “to stop playing politics with this issue. For decades the United States had the strongest and fastest growing economy in the world but China has that distinction now.”
Indeed, it is painful to watch the U.S. try to block global sales of equipment for superfast 5G internet platforms by Chinese tech firm Huawei, when the U.S. has no competitor that can equal Huawei.
Coons insists: “There are things we can do to strengthen our civic life, our infrastructure and the innovation and competitiveness of our economy.” He stressed the need for “more government investment in research and development in key technologies, reshoring industries that make us vulnerable, and investing in a few key industries such as semiconductors.”
Miraculously, here appears to be growing GOP recognition that such investment is needed. Example: Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio has called for government investment in key industrial sectors — the kind of industrial policy once anathema to Republicans — even as Biden proposes bolstering manufacture of semiconductors, pharmaceuticals and other cutting-edge technologies.
For those who care about America’s future, China policy should indeed “stop at the water’s edge.” And other key foreign policy areas from Russia to Iran to Afghanistan should receive serious bipartisan discussion.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the The Philadelphia Inquirer.