If there was one word used most often to describe the first hearing of the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, it was “bipartisan.”
Republican chairman Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, who called the proceedings to order around 7 p.m. on February 28, is friends with Democratic ranking member Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois. The 24 members of the panel were civil. Everyone looked outward at the malign influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The members resisted the urge to be drawn into domestic politics.
The press loved this feeling of solidarity. Clare Foran of CNN wrote that the evening was “a rare demonstration of unity across the aisle in a Congress increasingly divided along partisan lines.” The editors at Axios have called Gallagher’s committee “an oasis of bipartisanship” and “Capitol Hill’s great unifier.” The Washington Post editorial board was pleased as well. “It is all too rare these days to see House members working across the aisle with a shared—and serious—sense of purpose,” it wrote. “So we should applaud even tentative signs that it’s still possible.”
What happens, though, when the clapping dies down? House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Representative Gallagher deserve credit for focusing congressional attention on the most important challenge to American primacy in the 21st century. But history suggests that the collegiality on display at the Select Committee’s debut will be temporary.
While both Republicans and Democrats say that they recognize the threat emanating from the Chinese Communist Party, acknowledging a danger is not the same thing as agreeing on what to do about it. Nor is it clear that Republicans and Democrats perceive China in a like manner. On the contrary: Each party’s view of the PRC is refracted through the prism of its own agenda. The differences between them will become clearer and sharper as Congress is forced to descend from the heights of abstraction to the earthbound nitty-gritty of policymaking.
Consider America’s long, twilight struggle again-st Soviet Communism, to which the contest with China is often compared.
It was a Democrat, President Harry Truman, who at the outset of the Cold War established the policy of containment against the Soviet Union. In the main, Republicans upheld Truman’s strategy by following the lead of President Dwight Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon, and Michigan’s Senator Arthur Vandenberg. Thus, when it came to the American “competition” with the Soviet Union and global Communism, there was little separation between the parties.
Until Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson was a Democrat in the Truman mold, but his self-imposed constraints on taking the fight to North Vietnam and to Vietcong sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia prolonged the conflict, thereby feeding the growing anti-war sentiment on the left wing of his party. By 1968, when U.S. media distorted the outcome of the North’s Tet Offensive as an American defeat, Johnson had exhausted the political capital that had sustained the Democratic commitment to containment.
The bipartisan anti-Communist consensus unraveled. In an irony of history, the party that had done so much to lay the groundwork for U.S. success in the Cold War turned against its achievements. From 1972 on, most Democrats opted for a soft approach to the Soviets. They preferred diplomacy, arms control, and economic and cultural exchange to actions that might, in the words of President Jimmy Carter, reveal an “inordinate fear of Communism.”
The remaining hardline anti-Communists found a home in the Republican Party. They backed President Ronald Reagan’s military buildup, his stationing of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, and his assistance to anti-Communist insurgencies in Nicaragua, Angola, and Afghanistan. Meanwhile the post-Vietnam Democrats opposed all of Reagan’s initiatives.
It was only after the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union dissolved, that these Democrats retroactively constructed a myth of national unity against Communism during the 1970s and ’80s. “Yesterday, cold warrior was a liberal epithet,” Charles Krauthammer observed in 1993. “Today everyone pretends to have been one.”
America’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, followed a similar pattern. President George W. Bush, a Republican, played the part of Truman, reorienting U.S. counterterrorism strategy in groundbreaking ways. And at first, most Democrats acted like Eisenhower, authorizing Bush’s surveillance, detention, and interrogation efforts, as well as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yet, if Bush was Truman, he was also like Johnson. His failure to send enough troops to secure the Iraqi population prolonged the war and eroded support at home. By the time Bush left office in January 2009, the bipartisanship of the early years of the war on terror had disappeared—even though many of Bush’s policies and structures have endured. There hasn’t been a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil for more than 20 years.
The leadership of the China committee is aware that consensus is often brittle. That is why it has work-ed hard to present a united front. “Just because this Congress is divided,” Chairman Gallagher said in his opening statement, “we cannot afford to waste the next two years lingering in legislative limbo or pandering for the press.” Ranking member Krishnamoorthi agreed. “We must practice bipartisanship and avoid anti-Chinese or Asian stereotyping at all costs,” he said.
In fact, one already can see the fault lines that will turn into partisan fissures over China. Republicans frame the Chinese Communist Party’s hegemonic ambitions as a national-security priority, while Democrats concentrate on the economic costs of China’s industrial dominance. Republicans are interested in Chinese Communist Party infiltration and subversion of domestic institutions, while Democrats say that counter-subversion is a mask for xenophobia.
Republicans want to crack down on Chinese fentanyl production, while Democrats admonish Beijing for its human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet. Democrats also believe that China must be included in the campaign to limit carbon dioxide emissions, and so they are reluctant to provoke the Chinese into abandoning climate talks. Republicans, suffice it to say, do not put a high value on fighting climate change.
Nor are the cleavages simply between the parties. They are also within the parties. The GOP and the Democrats both have factions lobbying for closer commercial ties between the United States and China, along with advocates for the “strategic decoupling” of the two economies. And the GOP and the Democrats both contain figures who argue against the incorporation of American ideals of freedom into foreign policy, either because (in the case of the MAGA Republicans) those ideals are said to distract from the mission of “America First,” or because (in the case of the Democratic Squad) those ideals are considered false.
These disputes may be sublimated at present. They will rise to the surface when Congress must decide whether to increase defense spending, cut off capital flows, limit foreign investment and student enrollment, and subsidize clean energy. And they will take on added urgency and meaning if Congress is asked to authorize U.S. intervention in defense of Taiwan.
No American, then, should be under the illusion that the current spirit of fraternity is anything but transitory. That is the lesson of past generational conflicts, and indeed it would be odd if democracies refrained from robust arguments over international affairs. A bipartisan Congress is resolved to confront China—for now. Enjoy the unity while it lasts.
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