It's now confirmed: economic issues will drive both the Republican and Democratic primaries until the presidential nominees are determined. Exit polls in New Hampshire showed that pluralities of Democrats and Republicans rated the economy as the most important issue for them, outpacing Iraq, immigration, health care, and terrorism.
One important aspect of these economic concerns is the dramatic impact that trade and globalization are having on jobs, potential job growth, and voter anxiety about the future.
Despite their third place showings in New Hampshire, John Edwards and Mike Huckabee have given considerable focus to economic issues like trade and outsourcing. Over the course of the campaign, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have taken more aggressive positions on reforming trade policy because of this healthy competition of ideas.
John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Guiliani will find it hard to consistently appeal to the plentiful supply of blue-collar Republicans in Michigan and South Carolina unless they drop their blind faith in so-called free trade, which has destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs in both states. Not surprisingly, Republican opinion nationwide has turned decidedly against free trade. As I wrote in October, nearly sixty percent of Republicans now have a negative view of free trade, a stance that is still not reflected by most of the GOP candidates.
Some pundits try to chalk up these concerns to Lou Dobbs, "demagogues," and--I'm not making this up--pure ignorance on the part of voters. Give me a break. Dobbs reaches a modest audience, and few voters could give a hoot about the views of Pat Buchanan or Ross Perot. But the voter concern is real. Many pollsters are reporting that voter anxiety about the future is at record levels. And the jobs losses are real, too. Over the past seven years, one in five manufacturing jobs has vanished. And since 2001, more than 1.8 million jobs have been lost due to our grossly imbalanced trade relationship with China alone. Millions more are at risk.
The contests in South Carolina and Michigan will draw even more attention to economic issues like manufacturing, jobs, and trade. By now, voters all over the nation know about the unfortunate plight of workers in Michigan's auto industry and South Carolina's textile mills. But there has been little national discussion about how we can strengthen our economy by changing America's failed trade policy, much less any action by Congress or the Administration. It will take more than a basic economic stimulus package to make any lasting difference. We need an overhaul of our trade relationship with China and more investment in domestic manufacturing to grow jobs. 2008 could be a welcome year of change for manufacturing and trade policy.