Dean Olson, the chairman of Rockford Acromatic Products, an after-market auto-parts manufacturer, is a longtime supporter of Republican candidates. Still, he is not optimistic about the November election: “Even though the Democrats are in full rout, we’re not able to mount an effective challenge. I don’t see the leadership there.”
While Rockford voters lean Democratic, they might still be swayed in a presidential election by a Republican who took seriously the causes of the current recession: a costly and unnecessary war; the falling dollar; rising gas prices; overextended credit, both personal and mortgage; and the outsourcing of U.S. jobs.
John McCain is not that candidate. He has hitched his wagon to the Iraq war and expressed his desire to “bomb bomb bomb, bomb-bomb Iran”; he does not dare say much about the subprime mortgage debacle, lest his eventual Democratic opponent use the opportunity to bring up the Keating Five; he has told manufacturing workers across the country that their jobs are going overseas and are never coming back; and, like every other national politician of both parties, he knows that the falling dollar is about the only thing propping up what remains of the U.S. economy, so any remedy to fix the decline might well be worse than the disease. If that means even higher gas prices going into November, McCain will just have to take his chances.
The factory worker who has seen his job shipped overseas might (all other things being equal) turn to a Democratic candidate who, at least compared with McCain, talks tough on trade and outsourcing. (Of course, the fact that the Democratic nominee will be Barack Obama means that all other things are not equal.) But what about the factory owners—not the stockholders of multinational corporations but the businessmen at the helm of the small to medium-sized factories that are the backbone of U.S. manufacturing?
Like Dean Olson, most factory owners here tend to favor Republican candidates. With the economy headed south and a Republican in the White House, that support might well erode, but in Rockford, all of the signs are pointing the other way. Is the prospect of Democratic control of the economy so terrifying that it makes four more years of war, high fuel prices, and recession look like the lesser of two evils?
Those concerns are not irrelevant, but the larger part of the electoral calculus may be that, for many small manufacturers, the softness of the economy will not be an issue this fall. The dollar has fallen so far that, even with the concomitant rise in fuel costs, American manufactured goods look cheap to customers in Europe. We are nowhere close to wiping out the recent trade deficit in manufactured goods, and manufacturers should be cautious about expecting the (relatively) good times to last, but if anyone can continue the Bush economic legacy, it is John McCain.
As Mr. Olson points out, “I’d rather be running a small business right now than Ford Motor Company, wondering how to compensate for the loss of truck sales because of gas prices.”
The upshot is that, as in 2004, social issues might well play a larger role. The California Supreme Court’s May ruling on homosexual “marriage”; the move toward “therapeutic cloning,” including the creation of human-animal hybrids to grow organ tissue; and, of course, the decades-long battle over abortion—all are issues that John McCain, a political chameleon, might try to make his own. And socially conservative small businessmen, doing well enough at the moment, will feel more comfortable casting their vote for a cynical politician than for an ideologue who comes down on the wrong side of all of those issues.
Yet McCain is not likely to try to stop the spread of homosexual “marriage” or “therapeutic cloning” once elected; moreover, he supports embryonic stem-cell research and may even undo what little good Bush did.
The fact that manufacturing can recover while the economy is sliding into recession gives the lie to the idea that the American economy is a monolith. Multinational corporations have understood this for some time, and used it to their advantage—to the detriment of the American working class and small manufacturers. When the hard times hit, small manufacturers never get the consideration that the multinationals do. “When Rockford Acromatics starts to falter, I guarantee you there will be no federal bailout,” Dean Olson wryly notes.
It is time to turn the tables—to leverage the weak dollar to bring in business from overseas that can finance new equipment and processes that can put American manufacturers not on par with other countries technologically, but significantly ahead.
Let McCain extol the virtues of outsourcing and retraining for the “information economy” and the “healthcare industry.” The small manufacturers who once made America the economic envy of the world know that a country that does not make things has no real say in its economic future. By concentrating less on the American economy and focusing instead on planning for the future of their own businesses, they could do more to revive the economic fortunes of the United States than John McCain could ever dream of doing.
Scott P. Richert is Chronicles’ executive editor.
This article first appeared in the July 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.