In the course of this election, Democrats have worked hard to define John McCain as a man of many positions. Offshore drilling, George Bush’s tax cuts, and immigration are among the top three flip-flop allegations levied by Democrats.
But when it comes to the issue of trade, an issue the Arizona has unapologetically espoused during his political career, Mr. McCain has his feet firmly planted on a free trade foundation and has had no problem telling displaced workers their lost jobs are not coming back.
In an interview with The Associated Press yesterday, Mr. McCain again flexed his free trade muscle in preparation for a trip to Latin American to discuss trade with the region and recognized the burden was on him to convince U.S. voters that free trade works in their favor.
“I have to convince them the consequences of protectionism and isolationism could be damaging to their future,” Mr. McCain said, adding “I understand it’s very tough.”
With a soaring trade deficit, a manufacturing base that is all but rusted over, and an anemic dollar translating into higher costs for goods, the issue of trade has returned from political obscurity to take a prominent place in the presidential election. From Youngstown to Detroit and to the deserts of the Southwest, blue collar workers are feeling the pain created by free trade agreements that closed down copper mines in Arizona while using federal monies to support the opening of such mines in Chile and are still waiting for the benefits promised to them 15 years ago.
And as Mr. McCain attempts to make his case that he should be the 44th president of the United States, trade remains a major hurdle for the Arizona senator to overcome.
He supports a South Korean free trade agreement in which South Korea many view as lopsided. In 2007 South Korea sent 644,000 cars to the U.S. and the U.S. sent 6,420 to South Korea. The free trade agreement is believed to make the gap even wider in South Korea’s favor.
“When it comes to his support for free trade, Senator McCain has not wavered one bit,” said Club for Growth President Pat Toomey. “He deserves credit for persistently making the case to the American people that free trade is vital to our economic growth even when the issue is less than popular.” But those working with the manufacturing sector take issue with the way Mr. McCain, and other free trade supports, has framed the debate.
Fifty-six percent of Americans want NAFTA, the crown jewel of the Clinton Administration, renegotiated and only 16 percent favor the trade agreement, according to a recent poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports. One in four Americans say that free trade has directly impacted their family and of that group 73 percent say the impact was negative.
More than half of Americans, 54 percent, feel that free trade agreements have taken jobs away from Americans and only 23 percent feel jobs were created, thus presenting Mr. McCain with a hostile jury in the court of public opinion. Furthermore, 71 percent responded the negotiation of trade agreements is important to how they will vote this November.
And while conventional wisdom might hold such a diehard position on free trade stands to hurt Mr. McCain in the general election, preventing him from appealing to the blue collar Democrats reluctant to embrace Barack Obama, conventional wisdom has a strong chance of being wrong.
Pointing to recent comments made by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe that his campaign will not be dependent on states like Ohio to win the election, Mr. Tonelson believes such a comment was a signal to union leaders, “don’t assume you have us over a barrel on trade policies and don’t assume we are so desperate to win blue collar voters.”
Furthermore, if the Obama camp assumes unions, especially the rank and file, have nowhere else to go, the campaign could be facing a serious, potentially end game, blunder.
“The rank and file of labor movement stayed home in 1994 after (Bill) Clinton pushed NAFTA,” Mr. Tonelson argued, adding, “The Republicans made huge gains that year that lasted for over a decade.”
“If (union workers) don’t see a big difference between Obama and McCain on trade or if they see little conviction in Obama’s statements, a lot might go with McCain on issues of national security, gun control, and patriotism.”
[The Bulletin, 07/02/2008]