As Mitt Romney struggles in the polls against his Republican rivals (particularly Rick Santorum) for the GOP nomination, it may be time for him to focus more on industrial policy. Romney has obviously done a lot of thinking on manufacturing policy, so he perhaps should put that thinking to use. Romney's recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which slams the People's Republic of China for its distortion of the market, suggests that he may be moving in that direction.
Attending to industrial policy could be one way of helping Romney change the public perception that he represents the interests of the top 1%. According to recent polls, many voters think that Romney's policies would benefit the rich more than those of any other GOP presidential candidate; even 50 percent of Tea Partiers think that he favors the rich over the poor and middle class. There's something ironic about this perception, since many on the ideological, "purist" right have hammered Romney's policies as being too sympathetic to the middle class. But politics is filled with ironies; it's the job of a candidate to address those ironies and change the narrative. Focusing on restoring the health of the industrial middle class may be one avenue for narrative change.
A defense of manufacturing policy could also pay electoral dividends in Rust Belt states like Michigan and Ohio, where Santorum (who is also trying to stake out territory in manufacturing policy) is running neck-and-neck with -- if not outpacing -- Romney. These areas saw manufacturing as a source of wealth, and declines in manufacturing have hit many of these state economies hard.
Say Romney were to run an ad like this:
[Open on Romney in an abandoned, mostly empty warehouse that used to be a factory]
Romney: In 1998, this factory in -------, Michigan provided nearly a thousand middle-class jobs. A few years later, it was closed down, and a new factory opened up in China. This story has been repeated in small towns and cities across America for years, and, though it may complain, Washington has chosen not to deal with this issue in a serious way. Middle America has paid the price for Washington's negligence.
Well, it's time to change that. Americans are a hard-working people, and, given a level playing field, we can succeed at almost any task. But the playing field is not level. When countries manipulate their currencies, violate intellectual property rights, give illegal subsidies to native industries, and raise unfair barriers to U.S. products, the American worker suffers. As president, I will take steps to correct these trade imbalances, even if I have to step on some toes to do it. I support the free market, but a lot of the stuff we're seeing is not part of the free market.
When I'm president, I'll work to ensure that this [gesturing to empty building] is not America's future. Working together, we can turn this country around and safeguard for future generations the legacy of economic opportunity passed down to us.
Unlike complaining about, say, Santorum voting to increase the debt ceiling, an ad like this would focus on an affirmative case for Romney. It would help shift the broader political debate from being a process-oriented one (who's up today? will negative attacks backfire?) to a substance-oriented one.
A mastery of policy details is one of Romney's strengths. To reinvigorate his campaign, he needs to enunciate and defend a distinctive policy vision.