Three years ago, manufacturing difficulties were barely a blip in Washington. Now - after a sustained effort by industry - presidential campaign speeches are littered with references to lost manufacturing jobs, revamped policies for industrial America and claims about who can be tougher on China's trade policies.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the plastics processing industry still is down about 100,000 jobs from 2000, when it topped out at 746,000, and the industry's trade deficit grew to $20.2 billion last year.
The campaigns of President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., say they have policies that will help make manufacturers more competitive globally, including tax cuts and health-care reforms.
The Kerry campaign wants to end tax deferrals on some corporate income earned overseas as a way to discourage outsourcing, and then give a tax break for new manufacturing jobs created in the United States.
Bush officials talk about his previous tax cuts and business-friendly policies he wants to pursue, like tort reform and energy deregulation.
Not surprisingly, many of the industry's executives and lobbyists contacted said they are skeptical of Kerry's agenda and argue that Bush would be better for them. However, some of the executives also are quick to note anger - a lot of it - with Bush about trade policy.
``I think the smaller companies are really, really mad at the Republican Party,'' said Jon McClure, president of extruder ISO Poly Films Inc. in Gray Court, S.C.
McClure, who has testified before Congress on trade issues, said he was puzzled by the administration's decision earlier this month to say no to a group of manufacturers that wanted to file a trade complaint against China's policy of pegging its currency to the U.S. dollar. Kerry said he would support an official government investigation, while Bush has said more can be gained by continuing to talk with China.
``I don't see a whole lot of difference between the two parties on the issue of trade,'' McClure said. ``We've got double-digit growth in the plastics trade deficit. How do you slow that?''
Pat Cleary, senior vice president of public affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, said the trade and Chinese currency issues are complicated, and if pushing China on currency were easy, the government would have done it long ago. NAM did not support asking the U.S. government to file a trade complaint with China.
While NAM does not officially endorse candidates, it gave Kerry one of its lowest ratings when evaluating his Senate votes.
``I think at the end of the day, manufacturers will vote their wallet and will know that when it comes to tax relief and investment and job creation, regulatory relief and some hope of legal reform, they are in a lot better shape with the incumbent than with the challenger,'' Cleary said.
The Bush administration has adopted protective tariffs for the domestic plastic bag industry. But Bush's endorsement of tariffs for the steel industry really riled some. Mike Lynch, the top government affairs staffer for Illinois Tool Works Inc., said the tariffs have left some managers there with an uncomfortable political choice.
``I think they're in a quandary,'' said Lynch. ``They feel betrayed by the president on steel, but can't stomach voting for Kerry.''
The U.S. Business and Industry Council, a Washington-based group that represents mainly domestic manufacturers, said it does not see much to like in either candidate's position on trade policy, which it considers the No. 1 issue facing U.S. manufacturing.
``From the time of his inauguration, we've been completely dismayed by Bush's trade policies, which in our view are outsourcing policies,'' said Alan Tonelson, USBIC research fellow. ``We see almost nothing in Kerry's statements or on his Web site that would be much better.''
A high-ranking Bush administration official said the issues are more complex than trade alone. There are global adjustments going on in manufacturing, said Grant Aldonas, Bush's undersecretary for international trade in the Department of Commerce.
``Once you looked at the adjustment that was going on in the United States in the loss of manufacturing jobs, it was both less in absolute terms and less in percentage terms than what we saw in Brazil, India and China,'' Aldonas said. He spoke at a Sept. 22 Washington forum on trade policy.
Aldonas said the government needs to help industry become more competitive through tax cuts and deregulation, and shifts in energy policy and health care.
Aldonas, who said he spoke at the forum as a private citizen, said Kerry's tax policies would raise taxes on corporations, including many small businesses, and push manufacturing offshore. Aldonas was a key author of the administration's January manufacturing policy report.
A Kerry campaign representative, however, said Bush has been weak about enforcing trade agreements and inattentive to manufacturing's difficulties.
Lael Brainard, a former Clinton administration official who spoke at the forum with Aldonas, criticized the Bush administration for trying to cut funding for assistance programs like the Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
And she said Bush's ``borrow and spend'' fiscal policies are increasing U.S. debt to China, making it more difficult to push that country on its currency policies.
She touted Kerry's plan to lower health-care costs and to cut taxes for manufacturers, financed by raising taxes on high-income Americans.