In Ohio, China Is a Potent Campaign Weapon

If the presidential election is boiling down to Ohio, the outcome will hinge partly on the candidates' tack toward China.

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Ohio Senator Rob Portman take a tour of Worthington Industries in Cincinnati on Oct. 25, 2012

Worthington, Ohio

When Mitt Romney comes to Ohio, he likes to talk about a faraway threat that hangs over anxious crowds. “Look, we can compete with any nation in the world so long as we’re playing on a level playing field,” Romney said Thursday, standing amid propane tanks before more than 3,000 supporters at an industrial plant north of Columbus. “And I’m going to make sure China doesn’t cheat.”

Such rhetoric has been a staple of Romney’s campaign, not least for its impact in the Midwestern states he needs to capture the presidency. If the presidential election is boiling down to Ohio, the outcome will hinge partly on the candidates’ tack toward China. The rising superpower is a ubiquitous bogeyman in the Buckeye State, a byword for the economic unrest that swept across Ohio over the past decade as the Midwest’s manufacturing engines sputtered and factory jobs moved overseas.

Which is why the two men vying to run the 20th century’s top superpower are tangling over who can get tough with the potential hegemon of the 21st. The Romney campaign has long lambasted Obama as a feckless statesman, and one of the central threads of that argument is the notion that he’s been trampled by China. “Like a doormat,” Paul Ryan, Romney’s No. 2, recently charged, after the Obama campaign deferred a decision on whether to label China a currency manipulator, something Romney promises to do “on Day One.”

As TIME’s Michael Schuman notes, such a move wouldn’t accomplish much. Currency shenanigans have little to do with the U.S.’s trade deficit with China. Romney’s fix could worsen relations by prompting China to retaliate against the U.S. But this is campaign season, and his advisers believe the issue may help tamp down Obama’s margins in the state’s union-heavy Democratic strongholds. “Standing up to China is a major deal in Toledo and Cleveland,” says Scott Jennings, Romney’s state director.

In response, the Obama campaign has cried hypocrisy, arguing that Bain Capital was a “pioneer” in the practice of investing in companies that shipped American jobs overseas while lining their own pockets. “He’s been talking tough on China,” Obama told supporters at Bowling Green State University in Ohio recently. “It sounds better than talking about all the years he spent profiting from companies that sent jobs to China.”

Both sides’ attacks are misleading — and, like so much campaign rhetoric, drastically oversimplified. U.S. exports to China have boomed during the Obama Administration, and the President has done more than past Presidents to protect U.S. trade interests, including imposing tariffs on Chinese solar panels and tires. Obama touted the latter move at the candidates’ foreign policy debate this week, a gesture designed to appeal to Ohio voters. “Obama has really taken a tough position — maybe it’s a position few Americans understand — on China,” says Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO. “As a result of the tariffs on steel and tires, we’ve created jobs in Ohio.”

The attacks on Romney’s China record don’t hold up either. Romney wasn’t actively running Bain when it invested in companies that  outsourced jobs, as fact-checking analyses have shown. And while Romney likely profited from such investments, Bain was neither the first nor the only firm engaging in the practice.

The China baiting persists, however, because it taps into voter frustrations with China’s rocket-fueled rise at a time when the U.S. is mired in a sluggish economic recovery. Ohio lost 91,800 jobs from 2001 to 2008 because of swelling trade deficits, according to one report from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. Protectionism has strong appeal among some factions of the Democratic base, despite widespread belief among economists that it shackles the U.S. economy. Sherrod Brown, the Democratic Senator from Ohio locked in a tough re-election fight, has promoted a bill aimed at cracking down on Chinese currency manipulation and slammed the U.S. Treasury Department for giving China “a free pass.” Meanwhile, the free-trade policies that dominate Republican ideology — and which Romney regularly extols on the stump — wither away when it comes to must-win battlegrounds like Ohio.

So it goes in the nation’s most important swing state. Twice Obama has used campaign swings to Ohio to announce new filings with the World Trade Organization complaining about Chinese trade practices. “It’s a symbolic issue. For Ohio workers especially, the outsourcing of jobs is a deep concern and has been for years,” says Paul Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University. “So both campaigns are attacking China and blaming the other side for being too soft.”

That blame is being assigned on TV spots running across the state as well. In the Youngstown market, two Democratic-allied super PACs are running ads casting Romney as an “economic traitor” for the offshoring Bain has done. American Crossroads, the Karl Rove–founded Republican outfit, is up across Ohio with a new spot called “Bow,” which raps the President for kowtowing to China. It freezes on Obama — you guessed it — bowing his head slightly while he clasps hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao, a traditional gesture of respect akin to the American habit of shaking hands.

Even in Columbus, where a stable local economy propped up by government and education jobs has insulated citizens from the manufacturing losses racking other parts of Ohio, supporters at Romney’s rally said cracking down on China was an important task for the next U.S. President. “It really resonates, because we’re losing so many jobs to China,” says Jim Snyder, a businessman from Columbus. Whether Romney would follow through on his tough talk once in office is an open question, but it’s safe to bet he’ll keep relying on it to carry him there.

With reporting by Michael Crowley