With many Americans seized by anxiety about the country’s economic decline, candidates from both political parties have suddenly found a new villain to run against: China.
From the marquee battle between Sen. Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina in California to the House contests in rural New York, Democrats and Republicans are blaming one another for allowing the export of American jobs to its emerging economic rival.
In the past week alone, at least 29 candidates have unleashed new advertisements suggesting that their opponents have been too sympathetic to China and, as a result, Americans have suffered.
The ads are striking not only in their volume but also in their pointed language and unsubtle use of imagery.
One ad for an Ohio congressman, Zack Space, accuses his Republican opponent, Bob Gibbs, of supporting free-trade policies that sent Ohioans’ jobs to China. As a giant dragon appears on the screen, the narrator sarcastically thanks the Republican: "As they say in China, xie xie Mr. Gibbs!"
In an ad featuring traditional Chinese music and a photo of Chairman Mao, Spike Maynard, a Republican challenger in West Virginia, charges that Rep. Nick Rahall supported a bill creating wind-turbine technology jobs in China.
And on Wednesday, Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, began showing an ad that wove pictures of Chinese factory workers with criticism that Republican Sharron E. Angle was "a foreign worker’s best friend" for supporting corporate tax breaks that led to outsourcing to China and India.
The barrage of ads, expected to total in the tens of millions of dollars, is occurring as politicians are struggling to address voters’ most pressing and stubborn concern: the lack of jobs.
"China is a really easy scapegoat," said Erika Franklin Fowler, a political science professor at Wesleyan University who is director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising.
Polls show that not only are Americans increasingly worried that the United States will have a lesser role in the years ahead; they are more and more convinced that China will dominate. In a Pew poll conducted in April, 41 percent of Americans said China was the world’s leading economic power, slightly more than those who named the United States.
The attacks are occurring as trade tensions continue and the United States is pressuring the Chinese government to allow its currency to rise in value, a central topic under discussion at the International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington this weekend.
The ads are so vivid and pervasive that some worry they will increase hostility toward the Chinese and complicate the already fraught relationship between the two countries.
Robert A. Kapp, a former president of the US-China Business Council, said that even though tensions had flared in the past, he had never seen China used as such an obvious punching bag for American politicians.
"To bring one country into the crosshairs in so many districts, at such a late stage of the campaign, represents something new and a calculated gamble," he said. "I find it deplorable. I find it demeaning."
Not all of the ads are solely about China; a few mention India or Mexico. A recent ad from Boxer accuses Fiorina, a former chief executive at Hewlett-Packard, of outsourcing thousands of jobs to "Shanghai instead of San Jose, Bangalore instead of Burbank," and of "proudly stamping her products ‘Made in China."’
It is no accident that Democrats, in particular, have been eying China as a line of attack. This spring, national Democrats, including the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, began to encourage candidates to highlight the issue after reviewing internal polling that suggested voters strongly favored eliminating tax breaks for companies that do business in China. The party first began emphasizing the issue in a special election for a Pennsylvania House seat in May, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Never mind that there is hardly any consensus as to what, actually, constitutes outsourcing and how many jobs that would have stayed in American hands had been shipped overseas. The Democrats cite studies this year from the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research organization, that asserts 3 million jobs have been outsourced to China since 2001 because of the growing trade imbalance.
But Republicans, backed by some academics, say the number is much smaller. Indeed, Scott Kennedy, director of the Research Center for Chinese Politics and Business at Indiana University, said that most of the jobs China had added in manufacturing through foreign investment had come from Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, not from the United States.
Still, some Republicans clearly see the issue as potent, and they are counterattacking with ads stating that the Obama administration’s stimulus package helped to create $2 billion in wind-turbine technology jobs in China, a claim the Treasury Department and the American Wind Energy Association say is dubious.
Rep. John Boehner, the House minority leader, in a speech Friday in Ohio, blamed President Barack Obama and Pelosi for a "stimulus that shipped jobs overseas to China instead of creating jobs here at home."
Evan B. Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising, said that "China has sort of become a straw-man villain in this election" in a way that elicits comparisons to the sentiments toward Japan in the 1980s over car manufacturing and Mexico in the 1990s over the North American Free Trade Agreement.
While China’s growth has slowed a bit recently, its economy is still projected to expand by about 10 percent this year, continuing a remarkable three-decade streak of double-digit expansion.
"In a lot of ways it’s a code word: ‘Let’s be mad at China, because then the voters will connect the dots and say our manufacturing plants have been shut down because of China, and all the unfair labor practices, and throw on the fact that we’re basically selling all our debt to China,"’ Tracey said.
Even as the ads play up Americans’ unease with the threat posed by modern China, they often employ outdated and almost cliche depictions.
In a new spot for Rep. Joe Sestak, who is running for the Senate in Pennsylvania, a gong clangs as a narrator says of his Republican rival, Pat Toomey: "He’s fighting for jobs – in China."
An ad for Ryan Frazier, a Republican running for Congress in western Colorado, shows Forbidden City-style doors opening to reveal China on a world map, as the voiceover criticizes the Democratic incumbent, Ed Perlmutter, for supporting cap-and-trade legislation, which some Coloradans believe will drive more manufacturing jobs overseas.
Consultants from both parties are monitoring polling and voter reaction to gauge the effectiveness of the ads and to determine how long to continue showing them. Based on the back-and-forth between candidates on the campaign trail, the issue does not appear to be going away anytime soon.
At a Senate debate in Connecticut on Monday night between the Democrat Richard Blumenthal and the Republican Linda E. McMahon, Blumenthal repeatedly tried to raise concerns about the business practices of World Wrestling Entertainment, the company in which McMahon served as chief executive.
A tense moment occurred when Blumenthal asked: Why does McMahon’s company manufacture its popular action figure toys in China, rather than here at home? She said it was not her decision, but that of the toy company, and moved on.
A BARRAGE OF ADS
In the last few weeks, at least 29 candidates, either directly or through their supporters, have unleashed new ads tapping into Americans’ anxiety over China’s growing economic might. The list includes 19 Democrats and 10 Republicans.
Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.)
Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.)
Jon Barela (R-N.M.)
Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.)
Ryan Frazier (R-Colo.)
Raj Goyle (D-Kan.)
Denny Heck (D-Wash.)
Robert Hurt (R-Va.)
Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.)
Spike Maynard (R-W.Va.)
Rep. Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.)
Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.)
Rep. Mark Schauer (D-Mich.)
Austin Scott (R-Ga.)
Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio)
Tim Walberg (R-Mich.)
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.)
Tom Ganley (R-Ohio)
Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.)
Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio)
Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.)
Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.)
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D-Ohio)
Gov. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.)
Gov. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio)
Susana Martinez (R-N.M.)
Source: Campaign Media Analysis Group