TONELSON: 2012 campaign’s sources of trade realism

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The odds of America’s vital and intertwined trade, manufacturing and economic-recovery issues being discussed seriously during this presidential campaign have been looking like the stock market. They’ve risen and plunged several times in recent weeks alone, including during Monday night’s televised Republican presidential forum. Whether these swings reveal these issues’ inescapable salience or a persistently low ceiling will powerfully shape the country’s economic, as well as political, future.

For months, as I wrote in my May 31 column, it looked like only long-shot hopeful Rep. Thaddeus G. McCotter, Michigan Republican, would devote any attention to the nation’s fundamental sources of economic weakness — Washington’s bipartisan decisions to abandon and offshore too much of America’s industrial and other real wealth-creating activity to pay for affluence responsibly, and its equally reckless strategies of borrowing to fill the gap.

Donald Trump, of course, briefly rocked American politics with strong and apparently popular warnings along these lines. But once he nixed a presidential effort, the Republican race seemed certain to treat economics as something that stopped at the water’s edge.

President Obama, meanwhile, was clinging to a failed trade status quo more tightly than ever.

In late July, however, came a new spokesman for economic realism — former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, who has focused his White House bid around reindustrialization and the trade-policy overhaul it requires. So far, Mr. Roemer has moved the poll needles no further than Mr. McCotter, and therefore has been excluded from the televised presidential debates. But he has taken calls for offsetting myriad predatory foreign-trade practices with a “fair-trade adjustment” to import prices to major TV news programs and even the gates of China’s Embassy in Washington.

Maybe Mitt Romney was listening. On Sept. 6, the former Massachusetts governor unexpectedly brought comparable views to the Republican top tier. In fact, his economic-policy blueprint included trade-policy shifts not even backed by most Democratic and liberal trade-policy critics.

Mr. Romney hardly rejected the trade status quo wholesale, for example, supporting prompt passage of the Colombia, Korea and Panama agreements negotiated by the previous administration and adopted by Mr. Obama.

But Mr. Romney also promised to tariff Chinese imports unless Beijing quickly revalued its currency — a much stronger response to China’s exchange-rate protectionism than the long-standing legislation that authorizes only case-by-case retaliations. He vowed to halt U.S. government procurement of Chinese goods barring a true opening of China’s public-sector markets. And he emphasized the need to move to a reciprocity-based trade policy by proposing to create a “Reagan Economic Zone” that apparently would extend the biggest U.S. trade breaks to free-market-minded countries that return the favor.

Moreover, Mr. Romney’s trade message started reverberating, drawing high-profile rebukes from the likes of the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, and prompting rival Jon Huntsman Jr. — Mr. Obama’s former Beijing envoy — to spotlight business deals between the investment firm Mr. Romney founded (but left in 1999) and Chinese state-owned enterprises.

So was an urgently needed argument breaking out among Republicans over manufacturing and globalization policies? Not so fast. The MSNBC and CNN moderators proceeded to completely ignore these issues at the last two candidate forums, as did Mr. Romney and his competition generally.

And yet right before Monday’s tea party session, the subject was resurrected by none other than Bill O’Reilly. Days after blasting Mr. Obama explicitly for naming outsourcing-happy G.E. chief Jeffrey Immelt as a key jobs adviser, the talk-show host urged Americans to buy U.S.-brand cars to help the economy.

Obviously, Mr. O’Reilly’s attention might wander, and even a media superstar would struggle to hold multiple candidates’ feet to the fire. But a potentially important irony now hangs over campaign 2012: What the supposedly business-dominated Republicans are saying about the U.S. and global economies is more thoughtful and constructive than anything yet said by their opponents.

Alan Tonelson is a research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a national business organization whose nearly 2,000 members are mainly small- and medium-sized domestic manufacturers. Author of “The Race to the Bottom,” Mr. Tonelson also is a contributor to the council’s Web site, www.AmericanEconomicAlert.org.

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