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David McCormick’s longtime praise for China and trade could bite his Pa. Senate run

As he courts Donald Trump's endorsement, McCormick's past statements and his hedge fund’s investment in China represent perhaps his greatest political liability.

David McCormick last month.
David McCormick last month.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

As a Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, David McCormick has echoed former President Donald Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and supported a hard line against China. But when he landed in Beijing in September 2007, he brought a far different message.

“When China succeeds, the United States succeeds,” said McCormick, then the Treasury undersecretary for international affairs. Both countries, he said, had a “huge interest” in “the continued growth and prosperity of the other.”

“We owe much of the strength and vitality of our economic relationship today to the remarkable success of China’s economic development over the last three decades,” he said then, years before his hedge fund would raise more than $1 billion for investments in China. “No one here should have any doubt about our admiration for what China has achieved.”

It wasn’t an isolated statement. As both a public official and private citizen, McCormick in the late 2000s delivered speeches, made comments, and wrote essays that praised China’s economic growth and touted the benefits of U.S. access to a vast, rising market. He advocated for welcoming high-skilled immigrants, urged America to embrace free trade and globalization, and warned repeatedly against protectionism and “Buy USA” provisions in federal law.

And while he has warned more recently of China’s strength as a rival and praised Trump’s hard line, he hasn’t always done so. In 2019, he declined to answer a reporter’s question about whether he agreed with Trump’s tariffs, one of the former president’s signature economic policies.

Most notably to McCormick’s GOP primary rivals, just three months ago the hedge fund where he was CEO, Bridgewater Associates, raised $1.25 billion for an investment fund in China. McCormick has said it was a small fraction of the fund’s holdings, but according to the Wall Street Journal, it made Bridgewater one of the largest foreign managers of private money in China.

McCormick’s past views on trade and China were common and a largely bipartisan opinion at the time. He’s hardly the only person to shift his position, and many still see global trade as an overall economic benefit that should be encouraged.

But as McCormick runs in Pennsylvania’s GOP primary, and openly courts Trump’s approval, those past statements, combined with his hedge fund’s investment, now represent perhaps his greatest political liability — especially in a party that has adopted Trump’s protectionist posture.

“The bipartisan consensus in the 2000s ... was that this was a relationship where both parties would gain,” said Avery Goldstein, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China. “The United States didn’t really view China as a peer competitor at that time, either economically or militarily or even technologically.”

That changed as China grew in power, Goldstein said, punctuated by Trump’s anti-China posture.

“It’s a liability now to be seen as soft on China and there’s a tendency to want to be seen as even more hawkish than my rival,” Goldstein said.

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McCormick has tried to show his hard-line bona fides, including with a Fox Business column the day of his campaign launch calling for confronting “head-on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which poses the greatest economic and national security threat to the United States.”

In 2020, he cowrote a piece praising Trump’s China policy, writing that recognizing Beijing as America’s “primary strategic competitor is a critical step in the right direction.”

And he’s tried to link GOP rival Mehmet Oz to China, too.

McCormick’s campaign and allies argue that he hasn’t changed positions. They pointed to statements from the early 2000s showing that while he praised China’s economic growth, he also raised concerns about intellectual property theft and currency manipulation.

“Dave was warning us about the same threats that President Trump ended up addressing head-on,” said Matthew Pottinger, a former Trump national security adviser who had a significant role on China policy. Pottinger called McCormick a friend and spoke to The Inquirer at the campaign’s request.

On Tuesday, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s hawkish former secretary of state, endorsed McCormick, saying in part that he would confront China.

McCormick’s campaign said his 2007 praise of China’s growth in Beijing was the Bush administration’s position, not his. In other cases, his campaign argued that McCormick has supported fair trade, and attempted to recast past statements to fit the mood of today.

For example, McCormick’s campaign said his criticism of “Buy American” provisions was about wasteful spending and cronyism. But he didn’t mention those concerns in dozens of speeches or statements reviewed by The Inquirer. He instead argued for open trade, and in one 2009 column criticizing “Buy American” rules, he urged a “devotion to free market principles.”

His campaign also argued that he was focused on reducing the trade imbalance with China as early as 2006, pointing to calls for restrictions on some exports. But his comments at the time focused specifically on exports that could be used for military purposes, while also stressing the importance of keeping ordinary trade flowing, writing, “America’s growing trade relationship with China presents enormous opportunities.”

McCormick did acknowledge at times that free trade came with downsides for some American workers, urging training to help those displaced. But he argued that the overall economic benefits outweighed the downsides.

“We are committed to strengthening our economic relationship with China and opening its markets to create new opportunities for American firms and American workers,” McCormick told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2008.

That same year he called for “a new national consensus on globalization.”

“The key to remaining competitive in today’s changing world is embracing openness to trade, to investment, and to people,” he told the World Affairs Council in Pittsburgh. “To continue our unprecedented growth and prosperity, America — and Pennsylvania — must adapt to the new challenges and opportunities created by the dynamic global economy.”

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As a private citizen, he wrote a 2009 paper for the Aspen Institute arguing that “free flow of trade, investment and intellectual capital to the United States is more of a cure for U.S. economic challenges than a cause.”

His rivals see vulnerability. Their main line of attack against McCormick, played out in millions of dollars of TV ads, has been his hedge fund’s investment in China.

“China’s friend, not ours,” concludes one recent attack ad from Oz.

McCormick has tried to throw that narrative back at his GOP opponent.

His campaign has highlighted the celebrity doctor’s own business links to China, including Oz’s endorsement deal with a U.S. company, Usana Health Sciences, that makes a significant portion of its sales in China and does some of its manufacturing there. It has also noted Oz’s interview with Chinese state television while visiting the country for his talk show.

McCormick, meanwhile, has tried to flex his muscles.

“China really poses an existential risk,” he told the conservative radio host Chris Stigall last week. “It poses an economic risk, it poses a national security risk.”

“Just like President Trump,” he added, “that international business experience that I have is going to make me a really strong negotiator and leader on the part of the people of Pennsylvania.”

But in the past he argued against some of the very policies Trump popularized on the right.

In 2009, he cowrote an opinion piece that urged then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multilateral trade deal that Trump killed years later.

Clinton, he wrote, could use “her personal credibility” to maintain economic ties in Asia, and he praised the Bush and Bill Clinton administrations for working to “usher China into the global community of nations.”

His campaign said that was before the Pacific trade deal was fleshed out and that McCormick’s concerns about it grew as it was negotiated.

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He also argued in favor of visas for high-skilled immigrants, which Trump would restrict years later.

“The United States must attract and retain the world’s best and brightest to remain at the cutting edge of innovation,” McCormick said in 2008. “And, increasingly, many of these individuals will not have been born in the United States.”

McCormick’s campaign noted that Trump at times talked up giving priority to high-skilled immigrants, arguing he was in line with the former president. But Trump in 2020 suspended the H1-B program for such immigrants, and his administration pushed new rules to sharply curtail those visas.

McCormick kept arguing in favor of such visas as recently as last year, including in a May piece he coauthored in the conservative National Review. He framed it as an important step to confront China.

“In the midst of a generational contest with China in which technological leadership is increasingly vital to both national security and global leadership,” McCormick wrote, “we are undermining our own capacity to win.”