By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 21, 2008
OTTAWA -- Sen. John McCain traveled to Canada on Friday to offer a vigorous defense of the North American Free Trade Agreement, as his campaign sought to portray rival Sen. Barack Obama as inconsistent on free trade.
"For all the successes of NAFTA, we have to defend it without equivocation in political debate because it is critical to the future of so many Canadian and American workers and businesses," McCain told a crowd of several hundred at the Economic Club of Canada. "Demanding unilateral changes and threatening to abrogate an agreement that has increased trade and prosperity is nothing more than retreating behind protectionist walls."
McCain said his visit to Canada was "not a political campaign trip," and his remarks centered on keeping relations between the United States and Canada strong. The Republican from Arizona did not refer to Obama by name and refused to take questions on political matters at a news conference after his speech, though he was accompanied by top political adviser Charles R. Black Jr. McCain spent much of his trip in closed-door meetings with Canadian officials.
Nonetheless, his comments on NAFTA invoked Obama's criticism of the agreement, and McCain's campaign attacked the senator from Illinois on the issue throughout the day, accusing him of changing his position after becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee.
"For months, Barack Obama said that he would 'make sure that we renegotiate' NAFTA, demanded unilateral changes and threatened to unilaterally withdraw if he did not get his way," McCain said in a statement released by his campaign. ". . . Now he claims: 'I'm not a big believer in doing things unilaterally.' "
Throughout his primary battle with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Obama was a strong critic of NAFTA, describing it as a "big mistake." He said he wanted to renegotiate the deal with Mexico and Canada to impose requirements on worker pay and environmental safeguards.
Obama's position was questioned after a report that adviser Austan Goolsbee had downplayed the candidate's rhetoric as "political maneuvering" in a meeting with a Canadian diplomat in Chicago.
Obama says he still wants to renegotiate parts of the deal, but he backed off of some of his harsh language in an interview with Fortune magazine published this week. Responding to a question about his earlier phrasing, Obama said that "sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified."
As it was in the Democratic primary, NAFTA figures to be a major issue in the pivotal states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, where many view free-trade agreements as the cause of job losses. McCain's support of the deal could complicate his aggressive efforts to court working-class voters in those states.
During a conference call organized by the Obama campaign, Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) said McCain's advocacy of NAFTA "certainly demonstrated that he is completely out of touch with the reality of the situation on the ground in Michigan."
Obama's campaign also highlighted votes McCain cast against bills that would have provided additional money for workers whose jobs had been shipped abroad.
Obama spent the day meeting with 16 Democratic governors to talk about the economy, before holding campaign events in Florida, where he responded to McCain's attacks on NAFTA. "What's interesting to me is that he chose to talk about trade in Canada instead of in Ohio or Michigan," he said. "I think Senator McCain should have shared some of his views there to American voters."
The Democratic National Committee on Friday accused McCain's campaign of violating Hatch Act rules that proscribe political activity by government employees, citing reports that the U.S. ambassador to Canada helped organize the event in Ottawa. The DNC filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the State Department, a move the McCain team called a "publicity stunt."
The disagreement on trade is emblematic of disputes the two candidates have on other economic issues, with McCain offering a pro-growth, anti-regulation vision and Obama proposing a variety of measures to help Americans deal with immediate pocketbook issues.
McCain's strong support for NAFTA and other trade agreements could prove costly in November. In an April poll by the Pew Research Center, a majority of independents and Democrats said the impact of such agreements is a "bad thing," while Republicans were evenly split over whether they help or hurt.
Most economists say that some jobs have moved abroad because of NAFTA and other trade agreements but that the biggest causes of manufacturing job losses are the rise of China and improvements in technology.
Along with NAFTA, McCain highlighted Canada's close relationship with the United States on other issues, such as preventing terrorism.
"We've been through an awful lot together, Canada and America, and together we have achieved great things," he told the economic club. "We have a long shared history to draw from, and deep reserves of good will and mutual admiration."
On his trip, McCain also met with business executives and defense officials in meetings that were closed to the news media. His aides said the trip was part of the foreign travel that McCain has long done and will continue to do.