TONELSON: The real missing ingredient for GOP hopefuls

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As the Super Tuesday results are being digested, hopes will surely linger for a last-minute dream candidate to lap today’s Republican presidential field. Naive if taken literally, such hopes can nonetheless benefit voters and politicians across the spectrum. For they can point toward superior formulas for solving big and seemingly intractable national problems, and for assembling the winning political coalitions they need.

Here’s my version: One of the current front-runners co-opts the other’s strongest platform plank to become a truly credible champion of the manufacturing-based economic recovery America urgently needs - and whose social as well as economic importance so many voters instinctively get.

Both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum currently emphasize only one of the two variables in this national recovery equation - and both studiously ignore or actively oppose the other.

Mr. Romney apparently recognizes that predatory foreign trade policies must be countered in order to create what President Obama insightfully has called “an economy built to last” - rather than one based on credit and housing bubbles. Why else would he keep vowing to neutralize currency manipulation by China and other competitors, as well as to refocus U.S. policy on seeking reciprocity in trade relations?

After all, look at the results of decades of ignoring foreign market rigging and seeking mindless trade expansion: bloated trade deficits, astronomical national debts, and major offshoring of the nation’s industrial and technological crown jewels, along with the lucrative, broad-based income opportunities they create.

Yet Mr. Romney hasn’t remotely tried to make these trade, manufacturing and recovery connections. And until the GOP primaries reached manufacturing-heavy Ohio, he hadn’t even linked domestic industry’s stagnation and the resulting wage decline with the pressures that have strained and broken countless middle-class families, especially during these hard economic times.

Indeed, Team Romney sometimes seems set on discrediting any special interest in any industry for any reason. At least that’s the message sent by the candidate’s cavalier treatment of the auto industry rescue, and by a key adviser’s recent caricature of any official preferences for manufacturing as stereotypical Big Government hubris.

Mr. Santorum forcefully talked the manufacturing talk long before the industrial-state primaries. Despite harsh denunciation from free-market extremists, he has relentlessly touted manufacturing’s powerful multiplier effect on jobs, production and business-creation alike, as well as the distinctive global challenges it faces.

Just as important, Mr. Santorum has become the highest-profile champion of the long-standing social conservative principle that it was manufacturing that created the “wealth that was sustaining families and allowed folks to be able to participate in civic and community organizations without having to work two or three jobs. They could participate in the health of their community, which was vital for the health of our country.” Completing the rhetorical circle, Mr. Santorum understands why national security requires a world-class manufacturing base at home.

These winning policy and political points, however, are undercut by Mr. Santorum’s woefully inadequate agenda for reviving U.S. manufacturing. Its biggest weakness, moreover, is its almost willful denial (except, in the past, when Pennsylvania steel interests were at stake) that global manufacturing trade and investment are pervasively tilted against domestic U.S. interests not mainly by excessive American taxes and regulations, but by vastly greater foreign subsidies and trade barriers.

So imagine the impact on a recession-bludgeoned electorate of a Mitt Romney, who combined his trade policy realism with a vision of the U.S. economy grounded in productive, Main Street economic pursuits again. Or of a Rick Santorum, who put some backbone into his insightful manufacturing populism by attacking Beijing’s currency manipulators rather than coddling them.

This repositioning wouldn’t solve all the problems of the two rival campaigns. But it could overshadow them and intrigue crucial constituencies they haven’t yet cracked. Most important, the ripples could help create a genuinely viable governing strategy - whoever wins the White House.

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 website, www.AmericanEconomicAlert.org.

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