After listening to the presidential and vice-presidential debates, I'm wondering what it will take to get manufacturers' issues back onto the national agenda. Nothing in the early encounters gives me confidence that the manufacturing sector has captured the tiniest share of these national leaders' minds. Other, narrower special interest groups wield power far greater than their numbers. Why hasn't the manufacturing community been able to capitalize on its powerful position at the very center of the nation's top two concerns: the nation's economic and military strength? To answer simply: We failed to make our case. In spite of good intentions, strong arguments and great effort, we did not demonstrate to public-policy leaders the unique and vital role the manufacturing sector plays in building a strong U.S. economy and in buttressing national security. If we had truly convinced them, they wouldn't be satisfied with the manufacturing sector's slow, uneven recovery -- and it would have been a topic of the early debates. Worse, we failed because we fumbled when we were on the offensive. You remember. We had the Bush administration on the defensive. They were listening. They kept promising and not delivering, and we kept pushing. Finally, it seemed as if the administration was responding with a long overdue strategy to strengthen the nation's manufacturing sector and an even more belated appointment of a manufacturing "czar." Though some -- myself included -- derided the proposals as too little, too late, many in the manufacturing community praised last January's Manufacturing in America report and heralded each subsequent tiny rise in manufacturing's economic metrics as a sign of its success. We declared victory, and public-policy leaders understandably moved our concerns off their radar screens. Now, we must renew our campaign to regain the public policy leaders' attention and ensure they understand and address the manufacturing sector's ongoing concerns. After reviewing the past few years, I think the manufacturing lobby (I use the term loosely) can strengthen its message by adopting a few tactics that have been effectively deployed by others to reestablish, and then maintain the terms of the debate.
- Respond quickly: When others question our position, we must respond -- vociferously, with our highest level officials, in the most public way possible. Proposed cuts in vital programs, opposition-planted negative impressions, and perceived gains by opponents should be countered instantly and specifically.
- Accept no substitutes: We must not allow public policy makers to link our concerns with another group's, respond to the other group's concern, and then claim they have addressed ours. We learned this the hard way by accepting the Bush administration's "pro-business" agenda even though it ignores many of the unique challenges facing U.S. manufacturers, including several issues that are unique to small manufacturers.
- Don't give ground: Unless we're confident we can succeed with an incremental strategy, don't accept less than what we've decided we need. If we must give ground, we should complain loudly. Otherwise, policy makers will consider us pacified.
- Never declare victory Don't ever admit -- except perhaps grudgingly after really big wins -- that you've succeeded. World-class manufacturers and successful lobbyists know that today's success is nothing more than a small step taken in a longer journey. A common refrain to remember: We're happy we've achieved this, but there is still a lot of work to do. For four more years, and all the years beyond them, U.S. manufacturing executives must work to regain -- and keep -- the attention of our elected officials. Are you up to the challenge? Patricia Panchak is IW's editor-in-chief. She is based in Cleveland.