Did Donald Trump endorse Mitt Romney because of China?

At first glance Mitt Romney and Donald Trump seem an odd couple. Mr. Trump’s pugnacity is more Gingrichian than Romneyesque. Yet there was Trump bestowing a blessing on a smiling Romney.

Steve Marcus/Reuters
Businessman and real estate developer Donald Trump greets Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney after endorsing his candidacy for president at the Trump Hotel in Las Vegas Thursday.

Why did Donald Trump endorse Mitt Romney, anyway? At first glance they seem an odd couple. Mr. Trump’s pugnacity is more Gingrichian than Romneyesque. Trump likes to be wooed, yet Romney devoted little energy to cultivating the developer/reality show star.

Romney even dissed Trump by declining to appear at the debate Trump was supposed to moderate in December. Yet there was Trump at a Las Vegas podium on Feb. 2 bestowing a blessing on a smiling Romney. What gives?

One word: China.

Yes, it seems as if Trump picked Romney because he liked the cut of Romney’s China policy jib. That’s what the Donald told Greta Van Susteren Thursday on Fox News, anyway.

“I love what Mitt was saying about China and the rest of the world, which is just absolutely ripping us off and trying to destroy this nation with a smile. And I think that Mitt Romney really sees China for what they are,” Trump told Ms. Van Susteren.

Shouldn’t that be, “sees the Chinese for what they are?” Well, moving on, it’s true that China-bashing was a big part of Trump’s dalliance with a GOP campaign of his own. He complained that China is stealing our jobs and manipulating its currency to keep its exports cheap, and that President Trump wouldn’t stand for it. His solution: slap a 25 percent tariff on Chinese goods imported in the US.

Trump has insisted that just a whiff of such an approach would make the Chinese behave. But here’s the flip side: Walk into a Walmart, and look around. Everything’s made in China, pretty much, right? Now imagine everything suddenly 25 percent more expensive, due to a new US government tariff. Would you be happy? Us neither.

Mitt Romney’s China policy is indeed something which can see Trump’s counterpart from where it’s standing. Of the GOP candidates, Romney has been the toughest on Beijing.

“China has been able to run roughshod over many industries in this country and presidents have looked at it, complained about it, but really haven’t taken action to stop China from taking away our jobs,” said Romney Thursday during an appearance with Sean Hannity on Fox News.

So what would President Romney do about this?

“On my first day in office, I will label China a currency manipulator and under US law once that label has been affixed the president is able to apply tariffs to any of their goods ... I’ve made it very clear to the Chinese that’s where we’ll go if they continue the practices they’re pursuing right now,” said Romney.

When Hannity asked if this wouldn’t start a trade war, Romney noted that China sells more to us than we do to them. Thus, if Beijing imposes retaliatory tariffs, the US has less to lose.

But as we’ve noted, that’s backward: US consumers would pay more for everything from China, and they’re used to cheap Asian goods.

It’s easy to see why Romney might adopt this position, in political terms. It’s a populist stance that appeals to blue collar workers and cuts against Romney’s venture capitalist image. Would President Romney really do it? Never say never in geopolitics. But US politicians have a history of being tough on China on the stump, only to realize the difficulty of handling the US-Chinese relationship when they take office.

“Conventional wisdom eschews taking politicians at their word with tough campaign rhetoric on China ... and some members of the business community suggest that if elected, Romney would eventually moderate his stance to deal with the complexity of US policy on China,” wrote Michael Swaine and Oliver Palmer, Asia analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a Jan. 30 commentary.

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