Weekend open thread: Will Branstad really go to China?

As hard as it is for me to believe Governor Terry Branstad would move halfway around the world from his grandchildren, news reports and rumors in Iowa Republican circles point to Branstad being President-elect Donald Trump’s choice as ambassador to China.

Kevin Cirilli and Jennifer Jacobs reported for Bloomberg yesterday that the governor “is the frontrunner for the crucial post.” According to Kate Bennett and Hunter Schwartz of the Independent Review-Journal, Branstad will meet with Trump this week in New York. Branstad’s spokesperson told the Des Moines Register “no meeting with the Trump transition team has been scheduled.” Nevertheless, some local Republicans expect the president-elect to announce the appointment during a December 8 rally in Des Moines, part of his highly abnormal post-election “Thank You Tour.”

The Bloomberg story’s lede referred to Branstad as “a longtime friend of Chinese President Xi Jinping.” The relationship goes back to 1985, when Xi was an agricultural official from the Hebei Province and stayed with well-connected Republicans during a visit to Muscatine. Branstad and Xi have referred to each other as “old friends,” and the governor was full of praise the then-vice president of China when Xi came to Iowa in 2012. The following year, his spokesperson Tim Albrecht told the Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble, “They like each other — it’s not just smile for the cameras, pomp and circumstance […] They get along really well, and the governor believes that President Xi is very personable.”

I’m always amused when Republicans have no problem with Branstad toasting and flattering a leader of a brutal Communist regime. In contrast, conservatives were enraged by Western leaders’ official statements following the death of Fidel Castro.

In any event, let’s not pretend diplomatic niceties speak to a genuine friendship between Xi and Branstad. Former Mexican ambassador to China Jorge Guajardo commented yesterday on Twitter, “Okay so no, there’s no such thing as a Chinese leader having a foreigner as a ‘longtime friend’. Never ever. With no one.Just doesn’t happen.” If Branstad really does take this job, State Department officials will need to give him a crash course on how the diplomatic world works. The governor has met many foreign leaders in the context of trade missions, where he is essentially a sales rep for Iowa-produced goods. An ambassador plays a different role.

Trump himself has a lot to learn about diplomacy, which makes it especially unfortunate that he has been skipping daily intelligence briefings. Foreign policy professionals are horrified by the way he has spoken to some foreign leaders, Mark Landler reported for the New York Times on December 1. By taking a phone call from the leader of Taiwan, Trump broke with three and a half decades of protocol and “rattled the entire [Asian] region.” The Republic of China is not reacting strongly for now, but that could change once the new president takes office. I don’t know which explanation for the phone call is more scary: Trump being “manipulated into doing something he doesn’t understand,” as Evan Osnos suggested, or setting the stage for his son Eric to close a big business deal in Taiwan soon.

If Branstad does depart for China, Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds will take his place and will be able to choose a new lieutenant governor. Early speculation has centered around Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, seen as a likely rival to Reynolds in the next governor’s race, and Debi Durham, the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor in 2002 and Branstad’s economic development director since 2011. If Reynolds wins the next GOP primary for governor, state Republican convention delegates will get a vote on her chosen running mate. Bob Vander Plaats received hundreds of votes on the 2010 convention floor after social conservatives nominated him as an alternative to Reynolds, a little-known first-term state senator at the time.

Being the sitting governor would greatly improve Reynolds’ chances of winning the 2018 GOP nomination for the office. That political reality informed my longstanding prediction that Branstad would resign before the end of this term, possibly soon after the 2016 general election. (In recent weeks, I became convinced Branstad would hang around after all.) Even as the incumbent, Reynolds would face a competitive gubernatorial primary. Potential rivals include Northey, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, and at least one person from the Vander Plaats wing–perhaps Robert Cramer, the runner-up in the 2014 third Congressional district primary.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

  • What about the Dem opponents in 2018?

    Only solid rumor I’m hearing is Liz Mathis. Who else?

  • Dem Gov candidates parlor game

    Mathis, Hogg, Jochum, Janet P, and McGuire at the moment. If Andy McGuire were smart, she would quickly fade from the scene, with November’s disaster on top of the caucus fiasco. Yes, it’s not all on her but it all happened on her watch.

    Hogg is already holding fundraisers to rebuild the Senate Majority Fund (too soon IMHO; give it a rest) and he built up a lot of favors campaigning for (mostly failed) legislative candidates, but the bloom may be off his rose.

    Tyler Olson could be in the mix but he’s believed to be interested in local office in CR. Maybe he’s changing his mind and figuring why not go for it?

    There are a couple of other fringe candidates out there who are either delusional or who want to promote this or that issue.

    Wonder if Gronstal might be thinking about it?

    IMHO (and the election is a long, long way off, of course) none in this group stands a prayer against Corbett or Northey. Reynolds, maybe, because of Branstad baggage. There will be plenty to run on.

    My pick today would be Liz Mathis. She’s been doing a good job holding the Governor’s feet to the fire on Medicaid. Popular, with great name recognition throughout eastern Iowa. GOP spent a ton trying to take her out, but they didn’t lay a glove on her in a wave year. She is likable, connects with people.

    But of course all these Republicans will be very well funded and the Dem candidate will be scratching for nickels.

    • 2018

      I agree with most of that. Olson would be better off to try for Mayor of CR if Corbett runs for Gov. I agree with you that it would be hard for anyone likely to run on our side to beat Corbett or Northey, but I think Mathis would have a legit shot, particularly against Northey. As for Andi, I like her but after what just happened she is done.

    • Hogg for AG

      I think Hogg has his eye on AG. And I bet Olson wants mayor after Corbett takes his shot at Governor.

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