MI: Whose Jobs Are Coming Back?

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Michigan’s primary tomorrow is not getting the same lavish attention as other primary states’ contests have, but that doesn’t mean it’s not being just as hard fought. Mitt Romney, in fact, is in a fight for his life, blanketing the state in ads and criss-crossing the palm of the mitten in charter jets. Michigan’s sluggish economy has focused the Republican race (the only one happening) on economic policy and jobs, and McCain has done Mitt the enormous favor of providing the media with an irresistable soundbite that compacts the differences between two men into a single phrase: “Those jobs are not coming back.”

McCain has been giving that little piece of straight talk since April; usually in response to a question about NAFTA or outsourcing. Here in Michigan, however, with its 7.5 percent unemployment rate, McCain’s statement has a extremely negative resonance that’s allowed Romney to paint McCain as practicing “economic pessimism,” while he tell crowds that “I’m going to fight for every single job.”

It sounds like their policies are polar opposites, and it sounds like Romney himself will personally be attentive to Michigan’s economic woes once he is president. The thing is, the actual policies of the two candidates are virtually identical. As small government conservatives, neither man supports the kinds of targeted incentives and tax cuts that could help Michigan in particular. As free-marketers, both men support advancing free trade (indeed, the only policy briefing on economic issues on Romney’s website is devoted to how he will improve “Global Economic Competition”), a stance that, in economically depressed areas, in generally translated to “allowing our jobs to go to China.” While Romney tells people that he’s going to fight for “every single job,” his stated plan for those unemployed auto workers is to get them different jobs, to retrain them and improve education to prepare workers for jobs in the information economy, as well as for what some call “green collar” jobs in the burgeoning field alternative energy research and development. McCain’s plan? To retrain and educate displaced workers for jobs in the information economy and the “green revolution.”* McCain also wants to reform unemployment insurance, as his policy proposal recognizes that free trade and globalization “will not automatically benefit every American.” Romney makes no such concession. In his stump speech, he insists “the American worker can compete with anyone,” and vows that he will “bring back” jobs in manufacturing and industry in Michigan.

McCain says that his retraining and education proposal will benefit Michigan not because of any targeting, but because, “where else would you build the cars of tomorrow?” At the moment, they’re building them North Carolina, which is the heart of hybrid manufacturing and research in America. Romney focuses on Washington when explaining how he’d make a difference in Michigan. “We can help the Michigan economy and the American economy by reducing Washington mandates and the other burdens placed on industry,” says his spokesman, “such as embedded taxes, rising healthcare costs and legacy costs.” In his stump speech, he is at once more specific and more vague: “As president, I will not rest until Michigan comes back!”

But when it comes right down to it, the only significant difference between McCain and Romney on economic policy in Michigan is that Romney is telling Michigan voters what they want to hear. Romney’s savvy messaging may earn him his first “gold” in a real sport; his business background tends to make voters think that he must have some practical solution for Michigan’s “one-state recession.”

At his speech today before the Detroit Economic Club, Romney is expected to go into more detail about how, exactly, he proposes to bring those jobs back… without engaging in the kind of protectionist policies that would be completely at odds with his entire political and economic philosophy. Or perhaps his views have evolved.

* Obama, Clinton and Edwards also put a lot of stock in the jobs that will come with the “green revolution,” but have — obviously — dramatically different approaches as to how the government can help bring them about.