Why the Battle for Ohio Is All About China

In this swing state, the central message of both the Obama and Romney campaigns is the same: I'm tough on China, and he's not.

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Reuters

DAYTON, Ohio -- From where you sit, the presidential campaign may look like a grand referendum on different visions for the future of the American economy. But in this pivotal swing state, it's all about China.

President Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, are engaged in an escalating battle of China-bashing bluster in their Ohio ads and campaign appearances. Campaigning here on Tuesday, Romney took a detour from his stump speech to blast China for "cheating" by holding down the value of its currency and allowing intellectual property theft. He vowed to "stop it in its tracks," though he didn't say how he planned to do that. Obama came to Ohio last week to announce the filing of the administration's latest complaint against Beijing at the World Trade Organization, this one charging China with subsidizing auto-part exports, and the president can be expected to pick up the theme again when he campaigns here Wednesday.

Turning on the TV in my hotel room here, I immediately saw ads from both Romney and Obama hitting the China theme -- a Romney ad accusing Obama of costing American jobs because he refuses to "stand up to China," and an Obama ad saying Romney had "never stood up to China." All but one of the presidential campaign ads I saw on Ohio network TV were China-themed.

Clearly, the campaigns have decided this is an effective message here. It plays on Midwestern voters' anxieties about the loss of manufacturing jobs to outsourcing and foreign competition. But there's reason to believe that neither man is as tough as his talk when it comes to cracking down on China economically -- and for good reason. Aggressively protectionist policies might please some Rust Belt voters in theory, but most economists think a U.S.-China trade war would be a disaster for the world economy, and it wouldn't bring Ohio's jobs back. The campaign rhetoric on China appears to be just that -- the most craven sort of pandering, with little merit and less credibility.

Here's how the political fight over China breaks down.

What are they arguing about? The candidates' arguments are interchangeable and boil down to a simple claim: I'm tough on China, and my opponent is soft on China.

Obama points to the trade cases he's brought at the WTO as evidence his administration is not putting up with China's shenanigans. Meanwhile, he attacks Romney for the fact that Bain Capital invested in companies that shipped jobs overseas -- frequently referring to Romney as an "outsourcing pioneer," a claim that is thinly founded at best -- and the investments in China that showed up in Romney's recently released tax return. "Even today, part of Romney's fortune is invested in China," the Obama attack ad says.

Romney says he would take immediate action against China by formally labeling it a currency manipulator, and points to Obama's failure to do so as a major failing. "Seven times Obama could have taken action. Seven times he said no," Romney's ad says, referring to a Treasury Department report that is issued semiannually. Romney also counters Obama's outsourcing attack by pointing to federal money that has gone to foreign-based projects, calling Obama the "outsourcer-in-chief."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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