(Sept. 6, 2004) — One wants to be the war president. The other wants the election to be about the economy.
Our sitting president wants to talk about how his opponent is wobbly on his Senate voting record, especially for military spending. His opponent wants to talk about how our sitting president is in a dream world about the economy, ignoring the continuing crisis in lost manufacturing jobs.
This presidential election is again about the economy (echoing Bill Clinton's famous line, “it's the economy, stupid,” used as a saber in the 1992 election). If John Kerry and the Democratic Party have their way, the election will put manufacturing front and center.
George W. Bush would choose to keep the discussion focused on the war in Iraq and fighting terror. But if Kerry keeps up the attack and manages to stir enough support, manufacturing could become a major campaign topic this fall.
For those plastic processors and toolmakers who have complained for years that their pleas for help have fallen on deaf ears in Washington, the election could make for a galvanizing force, no matter who is the victor in November.
Yet, for those of us who have experienced outsourced work and lost income firsthand, the election may not mean that our politicians are listening better than before.
Instead, it is proving just how polarizing and divisive the issue really is. Depending on what side of the free trade/fair trade issue you happen to fall, the debate could merely crystallize your views.
Bush has been an unabashed, global free trader. His staff, including Treasury Secretary John Snow, has told media outlets that moving jobs to low-cost countries is part of trade and that trade makes our economy stronger. Bush himself has been quoted as saying that “confident free trade policy” means more people want to open plants here.
Kerry has shown more reluctance to embrace the free trade mantra and, in a typical Republican-Democratic split, takes the side of workers losing jobs. He has asked for a 120-day review of existing trade agreements. He has asked for an immediate investigation into Chinese workers' rights abuses. He has suggested reforms to enhance competitiveness and stop currency manipulation.
His skeptical platform on trade has been followed up by Democratic Party-sponsored television ads. The latest, shown this week right after Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at the Republican National Convention, depicts an empty U.S. factory with Bush's words echoing that the economy is steady and strong.
Where does this debate go? It could become a choice in November between increased protectionism and free trade. However, Kerry views are not always clear. He has voted for free trade bills in Congress, including the North American Free Trade Agreement. He even voted against the steel quotas that were temporarily implemented by Bush.
How much is just campaign bluster and how much is serious debate remains to be seen. But like in 1992, the issue could be on the table, and the election outcome could affect many companies. Of course, H. Ross Perot tried that strategy in 1992 too, stressing the “great sucking sound” of NAFTA.
Now, many of those Mexican jobs are being sucked to China. A question to ponder: Does election-year rhetoric on the topic make that much difference?