Over the past few days, the Romney campaign has seized on a report that Jeep was considering opening factories in China to claim that the president’s vaunted auto bailout has gone to support a corporation (Chrysler) that’s shipping jobs to China. Over the weekend, the campaign released an ad which makes a similar assertion, though not quite as stridently, saying the government “sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China,” citing a Bloomberg story from last week.
This is an overreach — Romney’s basically suggesting that Jeep’s overseas-expansion plans are a dastardly act of outsourcing or offshoring, playing on the worst fears of protectionists. But in doing so, the Romney campaign is just working from the same conceit the Obama campaign did this summer when they and the Washington Post reporting staff accused Romney of being an “outsourcing pioneer.” The outrage Romney’s “dishonest” remarks have caused on the left would be more legitimate if they’d held their own side to the same level of accuracy in June.
The Bloomberg story actually reports that Chrysler, and its parent company Fiat, is considering reopening Jeep plants in China that it shuttered in 2009 when Fiat took over, due to increased domestic demand in that country. The words themselves are completely accurate; the implication is unfair (for now — the fact that Chrysler isn’t planning to close plants in the U.S. now doesn’t mean that Ohio workers who today make Jeeps for Asian customers won’t eventually lose their jobs). But liberals are furious: The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn calls it “deception is emblematic of the campaign Romney and his supporters have waged”; the “fact-checkers” at ThinkProgress and elsewhere have eagerly chimed in to set the record straight. The reaction and skepticism from liberal and mainstream sources regarding Romney’s claim and the ad might be as overwhelming as the response to any other single argument in the campaign, even the one where Mitt Romney was accused of manslaughter.
People might indeed draw from the Romney campaign’s claims an untrue conclusion (Jeep is closing operations in Ohio and moving them to China), though Ohioans appear to have worried about this possibility before Romney made the claim (the candidate mentioned the issue at a campaign ad on Thursday night; the Chrysler press release regarding the Bloomberg story Cohn cites as “the very next day” is actually dated Thursday afternoon). But it’s remarkably similar to claims that the Obama campaign and the Washington Post promoted this summer when they asserted that Mitt Romney was an “outsourcing pioneer” at Bain, would make an “oursourcer in chief,” etc. In every case, the companies involved had opened new overseas operations rather than shifted work from the U.S., usually while also expanding here in the U.S., performing different functions, and often to serve local, foreign markets.
These accusations were so deceptive that the Romney campaign released a PowerPoint (natch) with quotations from each of the companies involved explaining how they had not, in fact, done what the Obama campaign claimed they had. Take this video of Stephanie Cutter describing “Mitt Romney’s campaign of shipping jobs all over the world,” describing a range of actions taken by companies that were owned by Bain Capital, supposedly under Romney’s direction. She brings up SMTC, “a circuit-board manufacturer that closed a plant in Denver, Colorado, and opened a plant in Chihuahua, Mexico,” as she explains, insinuating that Romney had offshored the jobs. For one, Romney wasn’t even at Bain when they bought SMTC though the Post reported on it as if he had been responsible. Secondly, after being acquired by Bain, SMTC merely bought a company with a plant in Mexico, and then two years later, closed an operation in Colorado which had performed only some of the same operations.
WaPo also mentioned Corporate Software, Inc. (CSI), a Bain company which opened operations in Japan and Europe during Romney’s time at the firm. But the company is a customer-support firm which was opening centers in those countries to service customers and supply products in those countries — that is, exactly the same thing as building Jeeps in China for the Chinese market, except even more sensible, given time-zone differences, languages, etc. (a similar accusation was leveled by WaPo, claiming a South Korean chip manufacturer which had the gall to run its factories in, you know, Asia was a pioneer in offshoring jobs). I had a more detailed explanation of Cutter’s accusations on the Corner at the time.
As Byron York points out, the “add jobs elsewhere = offshoring/outsourcing” argument is also actually precisely the same logic that applied to the NLRB’s erstwhile concerns that Boeing was “retaliating” against unionized Washington workers by expanding production in a non-unionized state, South Carolina.
Thus, a more accurate explanation of the Jeep affair than the current hysteria is to say, paraphrasing Cohn, that Romney’s latest line is deception is quite emblematic of the campaign both sides and their supporters have waged this year. That doesn’t excuse Romney’s misleading assertions, but he isn’t the only one to have made them, and the Obama campaign already shamelessly laid the groundwork for them. This isn’t just going after the other side for something you let your own guy get away with — the Left is outraged over the exact same dishonest argument they’ve actually already used themselves.
It’s also worth noting that, while both campaigns like disappointing rhetoric on outsourcing and trade, one campaign here has some of the right policies, and the other doesn’t. It’s actually a great success story, and will generate returns for U.S. stockholders, if Jeeps are selling so well in China that it’s worth building factories there to build them. But under the president’s proposed policies, Chrysler would not be allowed to deduct the costs of building factories in China as a normal business expense (meaning they might well not do it, slowing their sales), and the fact of double corporate taxation, which Romney would like to end with a territorial tax system, means that earnings from Chinese sales would probably not be returned to the U.S. be distributed to investors.
Though if it weren’t for the fact that both campaigns have indulged in so much rhetorical “new economic patriotism,” this argument wouldn’t be nearly as popular anyway.