On the eve of Tuesday's Michigan primary, Republican presidential hopefuls made an obligatory stop at the Auto Show in Detroit. While they all lamented the fragile state of Michigan's economy—a declining auto industry and the U.S. mortgage crisis have combined to give Michigan the nation's highest unemployment rate at 7.4 percent—two leading candidates advanced starkly different strategies for solving the state's economic woes.
McCain took the tough-love approach. Referring to auto-industry jobs lost in recent years, he asked:
Does anyone think they're coming back?" he told reporters. "There's going to be a lot of new jobs. Anyone who thinks the old jobs are coming back is either naive or not being straight with the people of Michigan and America. There's going to be a flood of new jobs because of this green technology."
In other words, Michigan will be saved by investing in new technology. Mitt Romney, however, fell back on a familiar tactic: Blame the foreigners. "I do not believe that the transportation sector of our economy has to be ceded to other nations," he told the crowd.
Mitt may be fighting the proverbial last war here. There's a reason the Detroit Auto Show is now known as the North American International Auto Show: The U.S. auto industry is already a composite of U.S.- and foreign-owned companies. By last year, foreign car manufacturers accounted for nearly half of all U.S. auto sales.
The Level Field Institute, an organization formed by retired GM, Ford, and Chrysler employees to encourage U.S. citizens to "buy American," reports that roughly 30 percent of U.S. autoworkers now work for foreign companies. How does Romney propose to protect these roughly 83,000 U.S. jobs (pdf) and rescue a drowning industry at the same time? By standing athwart the tide of globalization and yelling "stop"? Somehow, I don't think that's going to work.