Republican presidential candidate John McCain, in one of his strongest endorsements of free trade, called himself “an unapologetic supporter of NAFTA,” an agreement that many Americans feel has cost them jobs.
“I reject the false virtues of economic isolationism,” McCain told the National Council of La Raza, a major Hispanic organization. “Any confident, competent country and its government should embrace competition,” he said. “It makes us stronger.”
The Arizona senator has often defended free trade, but his speech Monday was among his most detailed and full-throated commentaries.
“Lowering barriers to trade creates more and better jobs, and higher wages,” he said. “It makes goods more affordable for low- and middle-income consumers.”
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Citing his recent visit to Colombia and Mexico, McCain said he understands “how vitally important it is to the prosperity and security of our country to strengthen our trade, investment and diplomatic ties to other countries in our hemisphere.” He said he fully supports the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the Colombian Free Trade Agreement.
Congress approved the NAFTA agreement with Mexico and Canada in 1993 and the agreement with six Central American nations in 2005, but has blocked the agreement with Colombia.
“I believe a hemispheric free trade agreement is a worthy and necessary goal whose time has come,” he said of a proposal he unveiled during the campaign.
Acknowledging that some Americans do lose jobs to foreign competition, McCain said he has proposed “a comprehensive reform of our unemployment insurance and worker retraining programs.”
“And for workers of a certain age who have lost a job that won't come back,” he said, “if they move rapidly to a new job we'll help make up the difference in wages between their old job and the new one.”
McCain's Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, has been much cooler to free trade agreements and wants to revisit some aspects of NAFTA.
McCain said he has earned the trust of Hispanic voters by championing an immigration reform bill that nearly killed his presidential bid. Obama, he said, failed to take a similar stand on the explosive issue of illegal immigration.
Obama has criticized McCain for turning against his own immigration bill.
Noting that Congress failed twice in the past three years to overhaul immigration laws, McCain said he did not want to try again until the government can “prove we have the resources to secure our borders and use them.”
McCain said the two failed bills, which he supported, would have dealt “practically and humanely” with illegal immigrants “without excusing the fact they came here illegally or granting them privileges before those who have been waiting their turn outside the country.”