Romney Could Beat Obama on Trade With China

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Mitt Romney has a chance to stun his critics and actually do the right thing for a change. He can give new meaning to the expression "a stopped clock is right twice a day" -- and take on President Obama's weak-kneed approach to China.

China can be a potential wedge issue for Romney -- and what's more, amazingly for this nauseating, trivia-obsessed political season, it is a genuine, substantive issue, one that deserves a central place in the political dialogue.

Say what you want about the GOP presidential candidate as he emerges from his anointing in Tampa this week -- he is certainly making the right noises about China's aggressive trading tactics. He recently said the U.S. must say "no more" to the behemoth to the east. China has systematically kept the value of the yuan low to make its exports cheaper, and Romney says he would brand China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. "That stance puts Romney at odds with President Barack Obama, who's resisted formally rebuking China for its currency practices," Bloomberg pointed out Tuesday.

Shortly before the Tampa convention, Romney issued a tough but vague statement saying he would "implement a strategy that makes the path of regional hegemony for China far more costly than the alternative path of becoming a responsible partner in the international system."

If he handles it right, Romney could gain the upper hand over Obama on a populist issue that is worrisome for human rights groups and labor unions, which are troubled by China's anti-labor policies at home and contribution to job-destruction in this country. Concern about China can be found on the right and the left, in the Occupy movement and even the Tea Party, as there is evidence that the Tea Partiers, their devotion to laissez-faire notwithstanding, aren't big fans of free trade.

Sure, there's every reason to expect that Romney's stance is just that -- a stance. A nice-sounding pose that is utterly devoid of substance. Indeed, China specialists point out that Romney's position differs from Obama's more in tone than substance.

You might even say that Romney's saber-rattling on China is the worst kind of hypocrisy, given that much of the surrender to China -- and inaction over its illegal methods -- took place during the Bush administration. It's also contradicted by his pro-big-business regulatory and tax positions and his bankrolling by Sheldon Adelson, the China gambling magnate.

Indeed, one has to be suspicious of Romney's stance, given the Republican Party's free-trade posturing over the years. The Republican Party has generally avoided taking on China, for fears of provoking a trade war with that country and being shut out of its vast market. The Economist made that very point in an editorial recently, chiding Romney for his anti-China rhetoric. The Economist said of his currency-manipulator threat: "Even if it is unclear what would follow from that, risking a trade war with one of America's largest trading partners when the recovery is so sickly seems especially mindless."

That's a valid criticism, as is the general caution that must be made concerning anything Romney says. Because he is such a flip-flopper, pretty much no position he takes can be viewed seriously. As I pointed out the other day, Romney and his wingnut running mate have absolutely no integrity.

So all these caveats need to be taken into consideration. But it can't be denied that China is an issue that has a definite gut-level populist appeal, and it is one that Obama has not handled with sufficient urgency.

All too often in recent years, it seems as if China is intent on turning the U.S. into a vassal state, in which we buy up its cheaply made -- and sometimes prison- and child-labor-produced -- goods, benefitting the Wal-Marts of this world while contributing to the destruction of the U.S. industrial base. A new documentary called " Death By China," narrated by Martin Sheen, has just hit the theaters this week, and while it doesn't mention the 2012 campaign, its timing is hardly accidental.

The real test for Romney is whether he will take on the big U.S. companies that profit on the backs of Chinese exploitation of its workers. Apple is a good example. Beneath the adulation of Steve Jobs and the media hype over its products is a company that uses a Chinese vendor that has systematically mistreated its workers.

Will Romney take on Apple? Will he take on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a primary cheerleader for the one-sided U.S.-China trading relationship? Will he take on the legions of U.S. companies that outsource to China, India, Mexico and other low-wage overseas labor markets?

Of course he won't. Indeed, his tax plan would reward outsourcing. So let's not get carried away by Romney's China rhetoric. The problem is that he has to 1) mean it; and 2) walk the walk as well as talk the talk. The chances of either are pretty slim. The chances of both are close to zero.

But, still, it's good to see some actual substance -- an issue of vital concern to every American -- actually creep into this horrid campaign. If Romney wins, this will be yet one more promise that he would break, giving Democrats an issue to use against him in four years. If he loses, it would remind Obama that trade with China bothers the American people.

Sounds like a win-win proposition to me.

Gary Weiss's most recent book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press.