Continuing to assail the anti-NAFTA rhetoric of his would-be Democratic opponents, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Friday their pledges to renegotiate the free trade agreement would hurt international relations and the war in Afghanistan.
As competition heats up in the Democratic primary in Ohio, Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., have ratcheted up their rhetoric against the trade agreement that eliminated most tariffs between the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Unions say NAFTA, signed into law by President Clinton, has cost the United States at least 1 million jobs, around 200,000 in Ohio.
Polls indicate approximately one-quarter of Democratic voters in Ohio are part of union households.
McCain Says NAFTA Threats Could Have Broad Impact
McCain suggested that Obama's and Clinton's threats to walk away from the treaty unless U.S. demands are met would have far-reaching ramifications.
"If we announce that we're going to unilaterally change a treaty or suspend it … obviously that I think it can affect Canadian public opinion adversely; in fact, I've been told that by my Canadian friends and colleagues," he told reporters after a town hall meeting at the corporate headquarters of Dell Inc.
"The Canadians are now supplying brave young Canadians to the fight in Afghanistan. One of our priorities is to try to get more cooperation from our allies throughout the world.
"All these things are interconnected," he said, suggesting such a demand would influence Canadian public opinion, which "could have an adverse effect on the situation with regards to their commitment to Afghanistan, which we all know is a matter of controversy among the Canadian people."
Strong Words for Dem Contenders
Pushing back against the idea that a Democratic president would help restore worldwide public opinion about the United States, McCain also used this issue to paint the Democratic presidential candidates as turning a blind eye to world opinion.
"When someone, as Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton have said, would 'renegotiate' the treaty that went through years of negotiation … with our leading trading partner, Canada, without consulting or without the agreement of our Canadian partners," he said, "I think it sends the wrong message to the world."
During the Democratic presidential debate this week, Clinton said she would tell the leaders of Mexico and Canada, "We will opt out of NAFTA unless we renegotiate it, and we renegotiate on terms that are favorable to all of America."
Obama agreed, saying, "I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced."
Ever since that debate, McCain, a strong supporter of NAFTA -- which the U.S. Department of Commerce said has resulting in a doubling of U.S. exports to Canada and Mexico ever since it was signed into law in 1993 -- has been comparing Clinton and Obama to the protectionists of yesteryear, repeatedly discussing the 1930 Tariff Act pushed by Sen. Reed Smoot, R-Utah, and Rep. Willis C. Hawley, R-Ore.
Thursday, after Canadian television reported that a senior member of Obama's campaign team has reached out to the Canadian ambassador to the United States to warn him not to take Obama's anti-NAFTA rhetoric seriously -- a report that both Obama and the Canadian Embassy denied -- McCain attacked Obama as duplicitous.
"I don't think it's appropriate to go to Ohio and tell people one thing while your aide is calling the Canadian ambassador and telling him something else," McCain told reporters Thursday. "I certainly don't think that's straight talk."
McCain first made the new line of attack tying NAFTA to the war on terror during his town hall meeting Friday morning saying, "One of our greatest assets we have in Afghanistan today, frankly, are our Canadian friends. It's very controversial in Canada, their commitment and the suffering and the losses we have faced. … So what do we do? The two Democrat candidates for president say that they're going to unilaterally … abrogate the North American Free Trade Agreement."
After a reporter noted that the Canadian government had recently announced troops would leave Afghanistan by 2011, McCain said that date was a long time away, and the United States would continue to discuss Canada's role.
Bret Hovell contributed to this report.