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Romney Goes to China – As an Electoral Strategy

Mitt Romney is running a haplessly dishonest, but potentially effective general election campaign. I don’t know if he’s going to make it to the general election. But if he does, these are the types of messages you’re going to see.

The ad is a little incoherent. It features an Ohio factory owner, lamenting the leadership in the White House to “create fair trade practices, to protect this intellectual property, to open up these markets for us to be able to do so.” It’s particularly an attack on China, who the factory owner claims is stealing his intellectual property. The clear implication in the ad is, if they weren’t engaging in IP theft, the owner would move his factory to China. Exactly how that would be a good deal for American workers is unclear.

Now, the one time that the President did approach taking China to the mat, by stopping the Chinese from illegally violating trade practices and dumping tires on the US market, Mitt Romney opposed it, saying that it was “decidedly bad for the nation and our workers.” Romney is essentially a flim-flam man on these issues.

But that’s not the subtext of the ad, of course. The subtext is that Obama is weak on China and it’s hurting American jobs. Never mind that the solution given here would further sell out American jobs. Obama said he would “take China to the mat” and he didn’t do it. There’s a brief mention of China manipulating their currency. As a policy matter, here Romney has an argument. If the dollar were allowed to fall against the yuan, rather than the yuan artificially propped up, American manufacturers would be able to sell their goods at a cheaper price, and the trade deficit would narrow. There’s bipartisan legislation that would punish China as a currency manipulator, and in the wake of an agreement on three corporate-written trade deals, a true compromise would be to pass that Chinese currency bill so we could have a truly balanced trade policy. It could support over two million jobs. Sherrod Brown called for that approach today.

“Extending Trade Adjustment Assistance is an important step to respond to job loss caused by foreign competition. But addressing unfair trade practices like Chinese currency manipulation can prevent job loss by ensuring a level playing field for American manufacturers facing a flood of cheap Chinese imports,” Brown said. “With up to 2 million jobs that may be hanging in the balance, Congress must take action immediately.”

“It’s time to put American jobs and American workers first by assisting laid-off workers and standing up to currency manipulation and other predatory trade practices,” Brown said in June.

The same bill passed the House with 348 votes in 2010, including 99 Republicans. I don’t really expect as many to get behind it today. But the President could have been working on this as a diplomatic matter from the very beginning of his Presidency. Ending currency manipulation, and the Treasury could have invoked this at any time and imposed penalties, would be the single biggest job creation strategy that the President could invoke unilaterally. He has not yet done it, instead getting China to pretend to unpeg their currency. He certainly was not out in front of this bipartisan bill in 2009 and 2010.

That’s a real critique. And the Romney ad works entirely on the level of subtext. Obama is seen as unable to “stand up” to China, according to the ad. Romney, through this implication, is standing up for American workers and manufacturing. Never mind the reality, that’s what’s going on here. And in the Midwest, in areas brutalized by globalization, it will have its intended effect.

Sadly, I don’t think either candidate is on the clear side of the American people on this issue.

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David Dayen

David Dayen