Why a small election in Kentucky is bad news for Donald Trump – and China

(Originally published here by South China Morning Post on November 12, 2019.)

American politics got a jolt last week when voters in the staunchly Republican state of Kentucky apparently opted for a Democratic governor, throwing out Governor Matt Bevin in an off-year election seen by many as a harbinger of next year’s battle for the White House.

A day before the election, President Donald Trump showed up in Kentucky to stump for Bevin, warning voters there about the onslaught of corruption and general hellfire that would ensue if the statehouse went blue.

While the excitement in Kentucky might have seemed just a sideshow in the three-ring circus of American domestic politics, those concerned about the state of United States-China relations should take a closer look at Bevin’s electoral misfortune because he was one of the biggest China boosters in the American political landscape.

“Constant improvement, continuous improvement, this is the purpose of this summit,” Bevin intoned at the opening of the US-China Governors Collaboration Summit he hosted with the National Governors Association in May. “We will establish relationships. We will establish friendships so that the next 40 years, and the next 400 years, and the next 4,000 years, we will have an opportunity to remember that this summit was the beginning of this constant change.”

The video then segues into footage of Bevin chatting happily with Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai, who agreed that “people-to-people” relationships would keep ties between the two countries intact.

Bevin, who hasn’t yet conceded defeat, had faced resistance from above about his China love-fest before it started. As an investigation by the Post’s Owen Churchill and John Power showed, the Trump administration had raised concerns about the event’s courtship of Chinese investors.

To be sure, there were other factors involved in the Kentucky election result. Bevin was disliked because of moves like his rolling back of public pensions, and his open disdain for anyone who tried to stop him.

While Bevin didn’t lose because of his overtures to China, discordant as they were against the backdrop of the trade war, those hoping for an end to the trade conflict should know Bevin’s standing within the Republican Party has been so tarnished that no one will want to pick up his causes and run with them.

This makes it less likely that we’ll see another National Governors Association conference so zealously celebrating US-China ties. Another road to better bilateral relations has been closed.

Even more alarming for those hoping for a rapprochement with Beijing was the messaging around another Republican who’s leaving the political stage, a departure that the party’s base is regretting much more than Bevin’s.

As Texas Representative Will Hurd announced his retirement, he warned his party to stop with the anti-immigrant paranoia and other tactics that have defined the Trump era so far. The only African-American Republican in the lower chamber, Hurd warned that pandering to white, fervently Christian heterosexual males – and ostracising everyone else – is suicidal as a long-term strategy.

And his party is getting the message. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said after news of Hurd’s pending exit from politics that he was “not concerned about any retirement” except Hurd’s.

This is likely to lead to a deeper assessment among Republicans about how wise it has been, and will be, to continue supporting Trump.

Most importantly for those looking at how domestic politics may affect US-China relations was Hurd’s warning about Beijing.

In an interview with Politico, Hurd urged his party to challenge the rise of China in a smarter and more forceful way. His argument encapsulates the emerging frustration within the party about Trump’s entire approach to China.

Trump deserves credit for recognising that Washington’s strategy for the past 40 years created far more value for China than it ever did for the US, and that a new, harder-line approach was needed.

However, Trump hasn’t followed through with a realistic strategy to peacefully resolve the problem. He merely blows hot and cold, depending on the mood of the moment, and seems content to restore the trading relationship as soon as it’s more evenly balanced and he can declare victory.

The tweet is probably in Trump’s head already: “Mission Accomplished! You’re Welcome, America!”

But there’s no quick fix for what is ailing the US-China relationship. As the American election season progresses, expect to hear more of Hurd’s message and no more of Bevin’s call for 4,000 years of strengthening ties.

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