Iowa, this place we call home, has been a state since it was admitted to the Union 170 years ago next week.
In that long arc of history, there has not been an Iowa political figure quite like Terry Branstad.
Many politicians start plotting their next campaign for a higher office almost as soon as they are sworn in. Not Branstad. He has been a model of consistency (or complacency, depending on your point of view).
Admire him or dislike him, you have to give Branstad credit for resiliency: Twenty-one years as Iowa’s governor, the longest-serving chief executive in Iowa history and the longest in the nation’s history, too. Four years as lieutenant governor. Six years in the Iowa House of Representatives.
That preference to serve in the Iowa Capitol rather than Washington, D.C., is why Branstad’s decision this month was so surprising when he accepted President-elect Donald Trump’s offer to be the U.S. ambassador to China.
Instead of serving in Washington, a mere 2-hour plane flight away from Iowa and the grandchildren, Branstad will be stationed in Beijing, China — 17 hours of jet time away from those grandkids.
Instead of criss-crossing Iowa, the state he loves and a place with blue skies and green fields, Branstad will be working in a country that is known not for its beautiful skies but for its thick, gray smog that blocks the sun day after day.
And most important of all, instead of calling the shots and making the key decisions the way he has for 40 percent of his adult life, Branstad the ambassador will be deferring to others — notably, the president and the secretary of state — to make those key decisions once he’s in Beijing.
That’s the biggest reason I was surprised when Branstad accepted Trump’s offer.
The life of an ambassador, especially in a posting as sensitive as the United States’ primary diplomat in China, is one that does not seem like an ideal fit for Branstad’s skills, temperament and his I’m-in-charge focus during his career in public service.
Sure, he has visited China multiple times accompanying business leaders on what are known as “trade missions.” And yes, he has known China’s president, Xi Jinping, since 1985 when Branstad was a young governor and Xi was a regional agriculture official in Hebei province.
Branstad has brought a polish to governing. He now will be working for a president who shows every sign, charitably speaking, of being a loose cannon.
Typically, the nuances of U.S. foreign policy are worked out in discussions among professionals in the Foreign Service and the political appointees a president puts in place. That policy typically gets communicated out to ambassadors and their staffs and then guides their work in the country.
That’s the way it has worked for most presidents. But Trump shows no signs of operating that way.
Consider the contrast between his views toward China and toward Russia. The public doesn’t know whether that’s an outgrowth of Trump’s business dealings in Russia or not.
He has targeted China as an adversary of the United States, but he has confounded critics with his flattering comments about Russia and its president Vladimir Putin.
Trump has called China a government-sponsor of computer hacking, but he has rejected out of hand the conclusions of the FBI, CIA and U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government was involved in computer hacking to disrupt the U.S. presidential campaign this year.
Trump has criticized China’s claims to territory in the South China Sea, but he has brushed aside Russia’s aggressive pursuit of Ukraine and Crimea.
It’s worth noting that China is the United States’ third-largest trading partner, coming in behind Canada and Mexico. Russia ranks way down the list, at 28. In 2015, U.S. businesses sold $155 billion in goods and services to China. Exports to Russia were about one-tenth of China’s total.
And then there’s Trump’s off-the-cuff foreign policy that emanates from his Twitter account. Americans — and Branstad — need to realize that the new president will continue to issue his middle-of-the-night comments before talking with his diplomats and advisers.
As governor, Branstad imposed message discipline on the thousands of state government workers under his control. Only designated people are authorized to speak for state agencies. The purpose is to make sure Iowa government has a single view of events and stays on message.
That sort of discipline will be next to impossible in the Trump administration because of Trump himself.
As Branstad prepares to pack for Beijing, he would be smart to tuck bottles of Maalox and a few pairs of athletic shoes into his suitcase. He’s going to need those working for Trump — to settle Branstad’s upset stomach and to shod him in footwear to allow him to scramble keeping up with the president’s shifting views and sometimes incendiary comments.
by Randy Evans
Reprinted from the Bloomfield Democrat