Democrat Gary Peters, Michigan’s first-term U.S. senator, has unveiled the primary focus of his 2020 re-election campaign, with an emphasis on a Democratic issue that dates back 40 years – industrial policy.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Peters said that he advocates creating a new federal agency, the National Institute of Manufacturing, which would provide government assistance to help manufacturing companies establish new markets overseas and develop highly-trained factory workers across the country.

Peters said that his plan would mimic the many successes of the National Institutes for Health (NIH) in its research and development that has led to numerous medical advancements, placing the U.S. as a leader in global health care innovations for decades.

It will also be guided by industrial policies that have existed for many decades in Europe and Asia.

Nurturing new manufacturing

“Other countries have strategic visions. There’s no reason why we can’t,” the senator told James Hohmann, author of the Post’s Daily 202 blog. “Something I believe to my core is that you can’t be a great country if you don’t actually make products that you can sell around the world.

“So many countries understand the importance of their manufacturing sector. They invest … they nurture … and they work on coordinated policies to make sure the sector is healthy and vibrant. Yet we really haven’t done that in this country. Manufacturing has played a back-seat role.”

Peters, who faces a potentially formidable 2020 Republican challenger in Detroit businessman John James, seeks a Washington-based planning operation that helps the private sector with engineering innovations, research and development, capital investments, targeted job training and worker apprenticeships.

James

James, an Iraq War veteran who lost an election to Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow less than a year ago, surely will rely on his conservative credentials in claiming that the feds cannot provide any assistance to manufacturers that the free market cannot create more efficiently on its own.

Peters, a former congressman, relies upon dreary statistics that show the effect on worker’s paychecks after Michigan manufacturers’ slide in recent decades. In 1980, five of the top 10 metropolitan areas in the U.S. based on highest average income were in Michigan: Flint, the Detroit area, Midland, Saginaw and Monroe. By 2016, none of those cities were on the list anymore.

Peters sees the nation’s economic policies now focused on technology and health care, to the detriment of blue collar workers. Flint and Detroit have lost out to Silicon Valley and Boston.

As a result, the senator said, the U.S. has increased spending on research and development for manufacturing by about 10 percent over the past five years while China increased it by 90 percent and South Korea increased it by 50 percent.

Consolidating 58 federal programs

In the proposal that Peters introduced today at a forum in Washington, a federal agency called the National Institute of Manufacturing would be created to oversee industrial policy. A manufacturing czar would lead the effort and consolidate under one roof the 58 existing federal programs, spread across 11 agencies, that deal with manufacturing matters.

Industrial policy has been the subject of debate in Washington for decades, particularly during the 1980s when President Reagan fended off Democratic proposals to give the federal government a major role in manufacturing production.

While the economy has nearly fallen off the radar in recent public polling due to the lowest unemployment rate in nearly half a century, wages and benefits are still a major concern. That could make manufacturing jobs a hot topic on the campaign trail in 2020.

As Hohmann wrote, President Trump breached the so-called blue wall in 2016 by appealing to working-class whites in places like Macomb County, Mich. He promised to bring back their manufacturing jobs that have moved overseas. Even though the economy is essentially at full employment, the president’s record on this metric is much more mixed.”

According to a Gallup poll in 2016, 50 percent of Americans said that “providing new federal government programs designed to increase U.S. manufacturing jobs” would be very effective, putting it well into the top 10 of 47 proposals tested in this research.

A different Gallup research project conducted a few years ago showed majority agreement with proposals to “provide tax incentives for companies to train workers to acquire new skills” and “provide $5.5 billion in federal dollars for job-training programs that would create 1 million jobs for disadvantaged young Americans.”