THAT SLOGAN about the "reindustrialization of America" originated in California with Gov. Brown's campaign for the presidency. From there it migrated to Sen. Kennedy's campaign. Now it has come firmly to roost in Gov. Reagan's speeches. That alone ought to make you a little cautious in sorting out the rights and lefts of this year's politics.
The term "reindustrialization" has great appeal, being both resounding and not very precise. It has a special usefulness to a candidate in mid-campaign as a device to draw business management and labor into the same constituency. But that prefix, "re-," deserves attention. Doesn't reindustrialization suggest turning the calendar back to a happier time? Doesn't it evoke a picture of factories contentedly belching smoke before the Clean Air Act, before Chrysler started losing money, before U.S. Steel started closing mills -- and before Japanese manufacturers got so competitive?
The telecommunications and computer industries do not seem to be greatly excited by the concept of reindustrialization. The term hints seductively at a return to the old ways of making jobs and money. The appeal is greatest among those industries whose great days were in the past and whose present is troubled to a point that drives them to plead for political help. The important examples currently are in steel, automobiles and rubber.
The kind of help people in those three industries increasingly want is quotas on foreign imports -- the most inflationary and disruptive kind of protectionism. The candidated will come under increasingly severe -- not to say extortionate -- pressure for import quotas as the summer proceeds. It will be an instructive test of presidential capacity to see how each of them deals with it.
To their credit, both President Carter and Mr. Reagan have been resisting the protectionists' demands -- so far. Throughout the past three years the steel industry in particular has repeatedly demanded protection from Mr. Carter. He has given it only a bare minimum of sympathy. Mr. Reagan, speaking in Michigan in May, just before the primary there, explicitly rejected import quotas on cars. He accurately argued that the quotas intended to protect Americans' jobs in Ford or GM plants will inevitably destroy the jobs of those other Americans who sell and service Toyotasand Datsuns.
But the issue will keep forcing itself forward in both parties. This morning Mr. Carter stops briefly for discussions in Detroit, on his way to Tokyo, where, in addition to paying his respects to the late Prime Minsiter Ohira, he will undoubtedly discuss trade and automobiles with his hosts.
Industrial growth, here or anywhere else, is a constant process of shifting resources -- the most valuable of which are skilled people -- into new enterprises from the mature and declining ones. To speed up that process, without intolerable social and financial cost, may well be the greatest demand on economic policy in the next presidential term. But that isn't what the steel industry, or most of the automobile industry, mean by reindustrialization.