Republican John McCain made a risky argument in a hard-hit Ohio steel town Tuesday, telling residents that free trade can help solve their problems.
That is a tough sell in communities that have hemorrhaged jobs as manufacturing moved overseas and cheap imports flooded the market. But McCain insisted that free trade is the solution and not the cause.
"The biggest problem is not so much what's happened with free trade, but our inability to adjust to a new world economy," McCain said during a town hall-style meeting at Youngstown State University.
"I think the answer is to understand that, free trade or not, we are in an information and technology revolution," he said. "So we want people to be part of that revolution, and we've got to be part of that new economy, rather than try to cling to an old economy."
McCain, on a weeklong tour of "forgotten" places where people are struggling with poverty and job losses, made a stop at a shuttered steel fabricating plant in Youngstown with broken-out windows and a crumbling, weed-strewn parking lot.
There he criticized Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for saying, when they campaigned in the Ohio primary last month, that they would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA.
NAFTA expanded trade among the U.S., Canada and Mexico, eliminating most tariffs on a wide range of products from agriculture to cars to computers. Clinton and Obama said they would insist on renegotiating NAFTA and would threaten to opt out of the agreement unless Canada and Mexico come to the negotiating table.
"Protectionism and isolationism have never worked in American history," McCain said.
The Arizona senator was competing for attention with the Democratic primary in next-door Pennsylvania, where Clinton was attempting to strengthen her case for a comeback against Obama.
At the forum, many agreed with the Democrats' assessment of NAFTA. A former AFL-CIO leader, Jack O'Connell, informed McCain that NAFTA is a four-letter word.
McCain cut through the tension with a joke.
"Jack, I am prone on occasion to make mistakes, but the last time I checked, NAFTA is five letters," he said, laughing with the crowd.
'Jobs are coming back'
In seriousness, McCain said the benefits of NAFTA outweighed the costs.
"I understand how emotional that issue and that agreement is, and those letters are," he said. "There have been inadequacies, there has been dumping in our markets and there have been unequal wages. ...
"I believe the overall result of NAFTA has been an increase in economic benefits to our country," he said.
McCain argued that job training and government assistance program are inadequate and need an overhaul. "Right now, many of these displaced worker programs have no relation to where the jobs are."
"I can't look you in the eye and tell you that I believe those jobs are coming back," McCain said. "What we've got to do is provide them with education and training programs that work."
He said struggling towns like Youngstown can rebound, much as his own presidential campaign did last year. McCain described how his White House bid was declared dead last summer as it hemorrhaged staff and ran out of money. He climbed back to win the New Hampshire primary in January and clinched the nomination with the Ohio and Texas primaries last month.
"You've been written off a few times yourselves, in the competition of the market," McCain said.
Yet new businesses are beginning to supplant the old "rust belt" industry of Ohio, he said.
"Dramatic change can happen, in this great city and others like it," he said. "With pro-growth policies to create new jobs, and with honest and efficient government in Washington, we can turn things around in this city."
The Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting, McCain is still trying to fend off criticism that he has been indifferent to the housing crisis and the market upheaval it spawned. Last month, he said he opposed aggressive government intervention. Since then, however, he has proposed aid for struggling homeowners, a summer holiday from federal gas taxes and other measures.
He traveled Tuesday to Ohio after campaigning Monday across Alabama's rural Black Belt, beginning his week with a speech against the backdrop of Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, the place where black civil rights marchers were brutally beaten by white police officers in 1965.