11/15/2007 03:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

UFOs or China: What's More Important to America's Future?

A presidential candidate debate in Las Vegas can't slide by without at least a couple gambling analogies, so here is my contribution: If the last Democratic debate is any indication, I'll bet the candidates are more likely to be asked in Las Vegas about whether they've seen a UFO (Dennis Kucinich in Philadelphia, to wit) than to get a serious question about jobs and manufacturing. Any takers?

This is one bet I'd love to lose.

It seems like the debate moderators have banned the topic, but the national media can no longer ignore it: American manufacturing is becoming a hot-button issue.

Yesterday, Reuters' Andrea Hopkins launched into a piece on voter concerns with this salvo:

It could be expected that Iraq would play a big role in the 2008 U.S. election campaign. But if recent populist rallies are an indication, another country may be rousing even more anger from voters: China.

And the focal point of Hopkins' analysis? Our town hall meeting on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh -- what Hopkins described as "an overflowing convention room" where "voters, union officials and company executives alike railed against unfair trade -- and demanded U.S. politicians do something."

Why have we struck such a chord?

On Tuesday night, United States Steel executive John Goodish said it bluntly: "It's our job, together with the union, to make sure we keep manufacturing competitive. It's the government's job to make sure we have a level playing field. They're not doing their job."

Voters are worried about losing their jobs because our government refuses to hold China accountable for its unfair trade practices. To add insult to injury, American consumers keep receiving unsafe food, toys, and other products in return. Jobs are going out and toxic products are coming in. Yet so much of the focus, even when we talk about jobs, is on issues like the proposed free trade agreement with Peru, which will have no real economic impact either way on our nation. Meanwhile, Congress and the Administration continue to dither on China.

Where there's smoke, there should be fire, and as I noted in Tuesday's Pittsburgh Post Gazette, "Any candidate looking for a head start to November 2008 would be wise to articulate a positive, forward-looking vision on how to strengthen manufacturing in Pennsylvania and across our nation."

One by one, the presidential candidates are going to have to respond to the public clamor. And it seems that former Senator John Edwards has become the first one to make the leap. Yesterday, Edwards released a manufacturing policy paper that calls for "smart trade" and policies that will grow manufacturing jobs. Astutely, Edwards notes that "currency manipulation, illegal foreign subsidies, bad trade deals and rising energy and health care costs" that have taken a toll on American manufacturing.

So who's next? Let the competition begin.