Republican presidential candidate John McCain (right) was in Michigan today meeting with General Motors CEOs and auto workers. Things are rough in that part of the country. For the past 30, 35 years, we've been hearing tales of the declining "rust belt." By the time Michael Moore made Roger & Me in 1989 -- by far Moore's best film, about the irreverent filmmaker tracking down GM CEO Roger Smith -- it didn't seem like things could get much worse in America's Industrial Heartland. But in 2008 -- not quite 20 years after Roger & Me played in movie theaters across the country -- things are worse. McCain realizes that the "rust belt" region of the Midwest -- especially Michigan and Ohio -- are feeling the pain of America's economic downturn most acutely. That's why he is spending time there and listening to the stories of troubled auto workers.
"We all know in this room a job is more than a job," McCain proclaimed, right in the heart of Auto Country.
But McCain's tough populist talk is often at odds with his unwavering advocacy of free trade, corporate welfare and minimal regulation of industry and environmental laws. Still, the Arizona Republican knows he is lagging behind in the polls in the race against Obama, particularly when it comes to economic issues. That's why this visit to the GM plant at Warren, Michigan, is so important to him. He has to appear sympathetic to the average American worker or he is going to lose much-needed votes to Obama.
By going to Michigan, McCain is right in the center of the sinking "rust belt." Adding to the woes of that region's inhabitants has been the nationwide housing crisis, which has hit that part of the country particularly hard. A recent Reuters article highlighted the terrible housing slump in the Midwest, which shows no signs of recovery anytime soon.
The Reuters article quoted Katherine Porter, associate professor of law at the University of Iowa College of Law as saying, "I expect the hardest hit places to be those such as Ohio and Michigan where the foreclosure crisis was driven by serious, if not permanent, economic downturns." Porter is quite correct in her analysis. Unlike the "Sunbelt states" of the South and Southwest, the "rust belt" is not experiencing steady increases in population growth or migration. The Reuters article also included a telling quote from Andrew Jakabovics of the think tank the Center for American Progress: "The sad truth is that in economically stagnant places, the value of foreclosed properties is often the value of the land less the cost of demolishing the structure."
Hard to believe that less than a half century ago, the troubled spot that McCain is touring was once literally the engine (no pun intended) of economic growth for the nation. The tragic decline of Michigan -- and indeed, the Midwest -- reflects the shifting economic priorities of the last forty years. As the country has moved away from protectionist policies that favored American industry and toward a greater emphasis on free trade, the service sector and high-tech industry, the ailing "rust belt" has become even rustier. And it is difficult to see how McCain's modest proposals -- which include giving a $5,000 tax credit to Americans who buy no-emissions cars -- are going to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.