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Bashing China could be the Democrats' ticket to the White House

Jake Novak
Senator Bernie Sanders and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren shake hands before the start of the first night of the second 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, July 30, 2019.
Lucas Jackson | Reuters

As the remaining 20 Democrats running for the White House continue to bash away at President Trump, it's beginning to look more and more like they're collectively missing out on a golden opportunity: bashing China.

It seems odd that the same candidates who do regularly attack "corporate greed," lower wages, environmental pollution, Big Tech monopolies, and an ever-growing assortment of human rights violations and racism don't seem to be very interested in prominently mentioning a nation that's been credibly accused of aiding and participating in all of the above.

It's not that some of the leading candidates completely ignore the issue, but they seem to bury any criticisms of China in policy papers. For example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren's recent call for economic patriotism does call out China for depressing U.S. wages, currency manipulation, and polluting the environment. But there's a difference between posting statements like that on a blog post and putting those messages into shorter slogans and stump speech applause lines. In elections, that's the difference between that message getting noticed or not.

Not only are Warren and fellow economic reformer Sen. Bernie Sanders relatively soft-pedaling the China issue, Democratic frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden is going the other direction entirely. Biden still hasn't backtracked or apologized for his statement in May saying that China is "not competition" for the U.S.

Meanwhile, two consecutive national surveys by ScottRasmussen.com show a clear majority of Americans support tariffs on Chinese imports. In late May a separate Harvard/Harris online poll found that 53% of registered voters approved of the "administration's decision to increase tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods." Of course, polls are all about the wording of the question. When voters are asked about "Trump's tariffs" or "Trump's trade war," as opposed to just "tariffs," or "standing up to China," we've seen recent surveys that go the other way.

There's a good chance the same voters who say they don't like "Trump's tariffs" will support them if they're promoted by Warren, Sanders or Biden. But none of the candidates have put together a credible alternative to tariffs for pressuring China to at least consider changing its trade policies. Asking Beijing nicely doesn't seem to work. The same can be said for many of America's top corporations and trade groups, who have made regular statements opposing the tariffs, but never seem to offer any other ideas.

For the Democrats, this is actually a losing strategy. Because when it comes to making a campaign all about opposing everything the incumbent president does, history tells us that strategy doesn't work.

Time after time, we've seen that no matter how much the base of the party out of the White House hates the current president, the proven path to defeating an incumbent relies on coming up with an overreaching message that has nothing to do with bashing the incumbent.

Think about the three challengers who beat incumbent presidents in the last 50 years of American history. For Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992, their campaigns were defined by an aura of new ideas and enthusiasm. None of them took a nasty tone toward their general election opponents. Even when Bill Clinton's campaign message in '92 became, "It's the economy, stupid," the "stupid" person that slogan was referring to was not then-President George H.W. Bush.

It's kind of like the first rule of "Fight Club" because the first rule of "Beat the Incumbent Club" is: don't talk about the incumbent.

Each of those three successful challengers since 1976 hardly mentioned the incumbents at all on the campaign trail. Right now, can anyone even imagine a Democratic presidential candidate not mentioning President Trump at least a dozen times or so even in a short speech? Probably not.

The failed campaigns of challengers Bob Dole, John Kerry, and Mitt Romney, were overly based on an "anybody but the incumbent" message. Challengers need to make more of a case for themselves to win. So far, it doesn't seem like any of the leading Democrats are doing much of that even though the China issue offers them that chance.

Of course there's still time, especially for Warren who's come the closest to focusing enough on China to be a credible critic if she starts talking about the issue more often. If she can avoid the trap of making her criticism of China too laden with mentions of President Trump, Warren can achieve the more unique role of a fighter for lower-income Americans as opposed as just another one in the herd of daily Trump-bashers.

But based on what we've seen so far in this elongated election process, it doesn't seem like any Democrats will get smart enough to lay off of President Trump long enough to make a case for themselves. China may not only be the best chance to do that; it also might be the last.

Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.