With attacks on Mitt Romney’s career as a venture capitalist coming fast and furious from his primary opponents, the Republican presidential campaigns have entered strange new territory for the GOP: economic reality, or, more precisely, the economy that most people experience.

Most people, it turns out, are wary of capitalism’s creative destruction, at least during times like these, when destruction dwarfs creation.

The reports of companies shuttered or shrunken by Bain Capital when Romney was at the helm and Romney’s own Scroogean phraseology — saying “I like being able to fire people” on Monday when, he later clarified, all he meant was that he liked to switch his health insurance — have created an opening for such improbable critics of capitalist churn as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to defend the common worker against predatory bosses. Will wonders never cease?

But the Republican economic discourse was already more heterodox than is commonly reported. Many of the candidates have taken casual swipes at Wall Street as they’ve traversed New Hampshire the past week. Rep. Ron Paul, Texas, and Jon Huntsman criticize the bank bailouts (“capitalism without risk,” Huntsman said at a rally in Peterborough, “isn’t capitalism”). And perhaps most surprising, given the party’s supposed abhorrence of industrial policy, Romney, Huntsman, Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum have all devised programs to “bring back” U.S. manufacturing.

Romney has pledged that he would declare China a currency manipulator and slap retaliatory tariffs on its imports his first day as president. Gingrich would allow businesses to expense all equipment purchases, he told a crowd at Derry High School on Monday, “to rebuild manufacturing.” Huntsman says that, given the increases in wages in China, the United States is “on the cusp of a manufacturing renaissance” if we make our tax policy more business-friendly. Finance, he argues, has grown too large, and we must place emphasis on reviving manufacturing.

Santorum proposes eliminating altogether the corporate income tax for U.S.-based manufacturing and, more than that, accuses President Barack Obama of denigrating blue-collar jobs. The president exhibits “hubris,” “snobbery” and “elitism” by setting a goal of having all young Americans go to college, Santorum said Saturday. “I’d be honored if my son was an AAA auto mechanic.” The Santorum Special is class politics and cultural resentment rolled into one, a right-wing populist synthesis that goes back through Pat Buchanan all the way to George Wallace.

No great mystery attends the GOP’s newfound affinity for manufacturing. The Republican presidential field (with the exception of Paul) is simply responding to any number of polls that show widespread public support for economic nationalism and manufacturing, and antipathy toward finance. The mystery is why Obama hasn’t identified himself more with manufacturing’s cause. Yes, his bailout and restructuring of the auto industry remains one of the most successful endeavors of his administration. The assistance he provided through his stimulus package to manufacturers of energy-efficient technologies — electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines — was well-intended, but since he declined to slap tariffs on their state-subsidized Chinese competitors, several of those companies have been unable to match China’s prices.

But by declining to challenge China’s subsidies, or to embrace a tax or tariff policy that favors domestic manufacturing, Obama leaves himself open to Republican attack in the general election. If he’s the nominee, Romney will call for retaliatory tariffs at every stop in swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. To be sure, if you called central casting and asked for someone to play a Wall Street guy who blows into town to close down the local plant, they’d send Romney or his double. But Obama’s failure to embrace a more robust manufacturing policy only reinforces the belief that he, too, is closer to Wall Street than Main Street.

Manufacturing is indeed beginning to trickle back to the U.S., but for workers it’s not the manufacturing of yore. Wages in high-tech plants as well as low-, and even among a growing number of union members, are around $15 an hour — that is, about $30,000 a year. A manufacturing job is no longer a middle-class job, and it won’t become one so long as our trade policy fails to favor domestic production and our weak labor laws make it hard for workers to unionize.

The political space is there for Obama to become more of a working-class champion than Santorum or any of the other Republican candidates ever can be, but not unless the president is willing to become more of an economic nationalist. For a president routinely attacked by his Republican rivals for being un-American, it would be a smart move.

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.