Weekend open thread: Branstad to China?

For years, I’ve predicted Governor Terry Branstad would step down before the end of this term in order to allow his chosen successor Kim Reynolds to run for governor as an incumbent in 2018. My thinking was influenced by political reality: the lieutenant governor has neither a strong ideological or geographical base nor the stature in Iowa Republican circles to win a statewide primary from her current position.

I saw two likely windows for a Branstad resignation: soon after the 2016 general election, or immediately following the 2017 legislative session. Either time frame would give Reynolds a boost on fundraising and other incumbency advantages going into a gubernatorial primary against rivals such as Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

In recent months, I’ve become convinced Branstad would serve out his sixth term after all. At least a dozen sources have independently indicated that the governor sounds open to running for re-election again in 2018. The resounding Republican victories in this year’s Iowa House and Senate races give Branstad another reason to stick around: the chance to work with a GOP-controlled legislature for the first time since 1998.

Yet President-elect Donald Trump has hinted Branstad might be his pick to serve as U.S. ambassador to China. Speaking to reporters before his birthday party/fundraiser last night, Branstad said, “I’m not ruling anything out.”

I don’t see it happening.

Trump kicked off the speculation at his November 6 rally in Sioux City. Jason Noble reported at the time,

Preceding Trump on stage Sunday were Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and U.S. Rep. Steve King.

Branstad likened Trump’s candidacy to that of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and echoed the candidate’s rhetoric casting the presidential race as a contest between the American people and out-of-touch elites.

“When it comes right down to it, on Tuesday it’s the American people, not the elite of America, that are going to determine the winner,” Branstad said. He added, “We’ve got to have new leadership, we’ve got to have strong leadership, and we need to make America great again and Donald Trump will do it!” […]

Trump returned the favor from the stage, complimenting all four of the Iowa Republicans and suggesting Branstad might have a role to play in his administration’s relations with China.

“There is nobody that knows more about trade than him,” Trump said. “He’s one of the ones that dealing with China, he would be my prime candidate to take care of China.”

The Des Moines Register’s editorial board noted on November 19 that the trade policies Trump advocates would strengthen China while hurting Iowa’s agriculture sector. Branstad has never acknowledged that fact.

Anyway, Trump’s surprising win prompted WHO-TV’s Dave Price to ask the governor whether he might agree to serve as U.S. ambassador to China in Trump’s administration:

“I’m not interested in living overseas,” Branstad said Wednesday afternoon [November 9]. […]

Branstad also ruled out serving as Secretary of Agriculture, because he said he doesn’t want to live in Washington, D.C.

He pointed out he has seven grandchildren now and wants to remain in Iowa.

I take the governor at his word here. He has never expressed any interest in living or working outside Iowa. The culture shock of moving abroad for the first time at age 70 would be considerable. I enjoyed the decade I spent overseas, but that would be a harder choice for someone who likes his current job and has a large extended family nearby.

During Branstad’s recent eight-day trip to China and Japan, William Petroski reported for the Des Moines Register on rumors about a new job:

James McCormick, an Iowa State University professor who specializes in foreign policy, said he is skeptical about Trump appointing Branstad as ambassador.

“He and Trump would immediately have some policy differences on trade,” McCormick said. He noted that Branstad supports free trade while Trump has vowed to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which includes Pacific Rim countries but not China. Branstad also has no real foreign policy experience, the professor said, noting the serious concerns the U.S. has about territorial disputes involving China and other Asian countries in the South China Sea.

Jonathan Hassid, an ISU professor who specializes in China, suggested Branstad could face a difficult task if Trump carries out his campaign pledge to impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. “It could start a big trade war with China, and if Terry Branstad were the ambassador, he would be right in the middle of that.”

Hassid added that the Chinese economy in general has entered a likely period of stagnation or at least a decline relative to the robust economic growth seen in the recent past.

“I suspect U.S.-China relations are about to get a lot rockier,” Hassid said. “This is not being the ambassador to Bermuda, or even being the ambassador to China four years ago.”

That sounds right. So why did Branstad tell reporters last night that he may meet with members of Trump’s transition team when he visits New York in early December?

“I am not ruling anything out,” Branstad said. “But you know my focus has always been here on Iowa and I want to serve the people of Iowa. I am really proud of what we did in this election and I am going to continue to work hard and accomplish as much as we can.”

I suspect Branstad gave Price an honest answer on November 9: he doesn’t want to move to China. Maybe upon reflection, he saw political advantages to keeping the story alive. It’s flattering to have lots of people know the president-elect might want you to do an important job.

The dumbest take on Branstad-to-China came from Iowa State University Professor Steffen Schmidt. Explaining why Branstad would be the “perfect candidate,” the guy who likes to call himself “Dr. Politics” told Petroski,

“He would represent the ‘nonconfrontational’ new era of U.S.-Sino relations — a big break from the Clinton ‘scolding,’ women issues-centered policy,” Schmidt said.

Gotta say, toasting Communist dictators is much more masculine than “scolding” them over small matters like child slave labor, unsafe working conditions, and women being coerced to have abortions.

People who study the region–like the other scholars Petroski quoted–recognize that Trump’s administration will take a more confrontational stance toward China. Next time, “Dr. Politics,” stick to topics you know something about. Though even in his area of expertise, Schmidt says some really odd things.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

P.S.-Joyce Russell reported for Iowa Public Radio on November 14,

Iowa’s Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds is putting to rest persistent rumors that Governor Branstad will retire before his four-year term ends, putting Reynolds into office and setting her up as the incumbent in 2018.

The governor has long denied any such intention. […]

Reynolds was asked at the administration’s weekly news conference if she had discussed the possibility with the governor.

“No,” Reynolds said. “Listen. What does he say at almost every stop? We’re proud of what we’ve done. We’ve got a great story to tell. We’re not done yet.”

Like I said at the top, I no longer believe the governor will resign early. But who finds it credible that Branstad and Reynolds have never discussed that scenario?

UPDATE: Petroski reported on Branstad’s November 21 press conference:

“I want to stay in Iowa. But I am also one that understands that if you get requested by the president of the United States to consider doing something else you should not shut the door before you even know about it. I don’t know that I am going to be offered anything. I am not seeking anything. I just want to do this job. I want to do it well. But if the administration wants me to consider something, it would not be right for me to say ‘No, I wouldn’t consider it.'”

Branstad described himself as a team player who has met with Republican and Democratic presidents — ranging from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama. But accepting a post in the Trump administration is not his interest or his focus, he said, and he remains focused on accomplishing as much as he can for Iowa. He said he is especially pleased that with Republican majorities in the Iowa Senate and House that the Legislature is positioned to approve significant legislation, such as funding for water quality projects. He couldn’t win approval in the past for a host of bills when Democrats controlled the Senate. […]

Asked Monday whether Trump or his wife, Christine Branstad, would carry more weight in making a decision about his future job prospects, Branstad didn’t flinch.

“My wife. We are not doing anything without her blessing, that’s for sure,” he said, chuckling. He added that he didn’t want to speculate about a possible job in the Trump administration, but he wanted to be clear that he loves his wife. “We have been married for 44 years and I want to stay married,” he said.

According to family acquaintances, the first lady spends a lot of time with her grandchildren. No way would she agree to move halfway around the world.

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