No Republican presidential candidate has made it to the White House without winning Ohio, and 2016 will be no exception, especially as the number of states truly in play narrows to a handful.
What’s the biggest issue on the mind of Ohioans? Jobs and the economy — the same as the rest of the country. But Ohioans intuitively care more about trade policy than their counterparts because their state is still heavily industrial. And it’s not just large auto assembly and parts plants. The Buckeye State is home to thousands of smaller manufacturing facilities.
Ohioans know that bad trade deals (and the U.S. doesn’t seem to adopt any other kind) are factory and job killers. They send formerly middle- and working-class families tumbling down the standard-of-living ladder. “Off the payroll and onto the dole,” so to speak.
Former taxpayers become tax consumers, in the form of unemployment checks, food stamps, Medicare, and the like. That’s something Republicans don’t like, but they keep facilitating it with their pro-outsourcing trade votes.
The reaction of Republican candidates to the now-completed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement is, as Vice President Joe Biden might say, “a big deal.”
The timelines built into the process of passing the TPP ensure that, at the earliest, it will be taken up by Congress next year in the middle of primary season. So there is nowhere for candidates to run and hide. They will have to take a stand, for or against.
What is on the minds of most Americans — except the Republican establishment and the punditry — is that the U.S. has lost more than 5 million manufacturing jobs and 57,000 factories since 2000.
President Obama successfully pressed Congress to pass Trade Promotion Authority — known as “fast track” — in June with the help of Republican free-trade advocates, who are a majority of the caucus. He and his Republican allies have stated repeatedly that the U.S. must chase growth, not by taking back home market share from the flood of imported goods that came courtesy of previous free trade deals, but by exporting to fast-growing markets in Asia.
However, these markets grew fast because they started from a low point. While their growth is mathematically impressive, they still possess little ability to buy American-made goods.
Further, growth in Asia is slowing considerably because it is dependent on selling to China, a nation whose economy has almost stalled compared to its glory days of 10-percent growth.
What is on the minds of most Americans — except the Republican establishment and the punditry — is that the U.S. has lost more than 5 million manufacturing jobs and 57,000 factories since 2000. This dismantled manufacturing has come at a real cost for America’s middle class, and voters instinctively know TPP is not the answer.
It turns out that the middle class, America’s single greatest achievement, is not going down without a fight. These are the people who are rallying to Donald Trump and willing to overlook some obvious personality flaws for the chance to save their livelihoods and those of their children.
Who is addressing trade in this pre-primary season? Trump, and to a lesser extent former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, though retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and businesswoman Carly Fiorina have made some noise about the TPP, too. We have run more than 40 years of trade deficits in this country.
Our national debt, in large part due to our misguided trade polices, has now reached $18 trillion. We have added $7 trillion in the Obama era alone. Who is talking about the national debt on a regular basis? Again, Trump.
Republicans can’t win the White House without running a candidate who rejects the TPP.
What does trade policy have to do with elections? Not much until now. Polls show that majorities of Americans have opposed free-trade deals for more than two decades — but their viewpoint has been ignored by their elected representatives who kowtow to Wall Street.
However, the American people have finally had enough. The reason for Trump’s popularity, and the same is true of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on the left, is opposition to a continuation of politics as usual. Both candidates are dead set against TPP. And both oppose open borders — the flip side of the free-trade coin.
Import cheap labor to compete with Americans, or outsource production to cheap labor countries. The result is the same: fewer good jobs, stagnant or lower wages, fewer opportunities, and a lower standard of living.
Back to Ohio. Republicans can’t win the White House without running a candidate who rejects the TPP.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 nominee, was a professional-grade outsourcer — and Ohioans knew it. They stayed home rather than vote for him. His last-minute scare ad — that Jeep was moving all of its production to China — was not only an act of desperation, but it was untrue.
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In 2004, Ohio was the state central to the election. Both President George W. Bush and then-Sen. John Kerry needed Ohio to win the presidency. Bush won by about 127,000 votes. If Kerry, who had a long Senate voting record in favor of free-trade agreements, had offered to do something about the industrial devastation wrought by free trade, he might well have picked up an extra 65,000 votes in Ohio, and he would have been president.
So the message the American people are sending to Washington, D.C., and to both political parties, is that it is no longer business as usual with free trade. That is the fuel propelling the Trump juggernaut. Whether the Republican establishment, concentrating on the rough edges of Trump’s personality, can focus instead on the public’s objection to trade deals and instill this into their political thinking remains to be seen.
But they are perfectly capable of ignoring the American middle class and, to please Wall Street and the multinationals, throwing away more factories, jobs, votes, Ohio — and the White House.
Kevin Kearns is president of the U.S. Business & Industry Council (USBIC), a national business organization advocating for domestic U.S. manufacturers since 1933.