Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have both been upping the ante on international trade issues lately, especially America's big trade flashpoint, China.
Romney recently picked up an unintended reverse endorsement, of a sort, from the Club for Growth, a millionaires' club super PAC that would normally be a natural friend to the likes of him. Citing his threats to impose a tariff on China if that nation doesn't end its currency manipulation, they deemed him insufficiently enthusiastic about free trade and refused to endorse him. Perversely, this is good news from the point of view of trade reform, as it suggests that these consummate political insiders, who may know a thing or two we peasants don't, may just have tipped us off that his tough line on China trade is authentic.
One can only hope.
Obama, of course, isn't buying it, and has been calling Romney a phony on China trade because, supposedly, Romney was quite happy, during his business career at Bain Capital, to profit from off-shoring jobs there.
Indeed he was, but not to a greater extent than American industry as a whole during this period. His business career doesn't fit the "hero" or the "villain" narrative all that well either way.
Obama also filed a nominally large, if largely symbolic, trade case against China at the WTO concerning the auto industry.
Romney has called this "too little, too late” and pointed out how much more Obama has had the chance to do—starting with designating China a currency manipulator—during his term in office.
So... which of them is lying?
Possibly, both are, as it's no secret that working class votes are up for grabs in key states like Ohio, which are trade sensitive. They may both be posturing at trying to help people who are only of interest to Washington every four years.
The upcoming presidential debates are going to be the last serious chance (especially for Romney, who can't announce policy initiatives) to put some serious meat on their rival claims to be trade hawks.
I am not getting my hopes up. I increasingly think they both regard the issue as a merely tactical one and disdain it as a serious question of economic strategy.
Meanwhile, the trade deficit's $500 billion a year leak in our economy continues, and people wonder why the recovery is so sluggish.
For more on the manufacturing issues shaping the 2012 election, click here.
Ian Fletcher is Senior Economist of the Coalition for a Prosperous America, a nationwide grass-roots organization dedicated to fixing America’s trade policies. He is the author of Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace It and Why.