Free trade-off

John McCain came under Democratic fire again this week for traveling abroad to talk about trade. After taking a trip to Canada just two weeks ago to discuss the North American Free Trade Agreement, McCain on Thursday returned home to Phoenix from a three-day trip to Colombia and Mexico where he reaffirmed his commitment to free trade.

Although Barack Obama was much quieter about this trip than he was during McCain's last international campaign swing, some Democratic campaign surrogates weren't so shy. On a conference call held just as McCain was about to take off from Indianapolis for Colombia, the Obama campaign attacked McCain, saying he wasn't seriously addressing the effects of free trade here at home.

"Just recently, Senator McCain traveled to Canada to talk about his support for NAFTA, and today, after he finishes his speech here in Indiana, he's hopping on a plane and going to Colombia and Mexico to talk about how much our trade agreements are going to help those countries rather than talking about what we can do to help this country," said Terry Thurman, former president of the United Auto Workers. "I find it no surprise that he's going to go to Mexico to talk how great NAFTA is because he is certainly not going to find much support for it in the Hoosier State."

Also on the call was Russ Stilwell, the Democratic majority leader of the Indiana House of Representatives, who criticized McCain for visiting the state for a fundraiser and a speech to the National Sheriffs' Association but not for a serious discussion about trade.

"It just amazes me that John McCain comes to Indianapolis to give a little talk and a little fundraiser, and then he's off to Mexico and Colombia and we've got hard-working Hoosiers and Americans across our nation really hurting," Stillwell said.

Thurman said his main concern about NAFTA was its weak -- or at least poorly enforced -- labor and environmental standards, something Obama has said he would push to fix, even if the only way to get Canada and Mexico to agree to new standards is to threaten to pull the U.S. out of the 14-year-old agreement.

On his way to Colombia, McCain spoke to reporters on his new Straight Talk Express plane about the proposed Colombian Free Trade Agreement and called Obama's approach to trade protectionist.

"This free trade agreement has some of the strongest environmental and labor agreements in it," McCain said. "But he's opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the North American Free Trade Agreement, this free to trade -- free trade agreement, and so we have a fundamental difference. I think that we can make progress in these areas and as a result of free trade and improving economies these [labor and environmental] issues are more effectively addressed. He doesn't think so. He's a protectionist and anti-free-trade."

Saying Obama has "opposed" free trade agreements isn't exactly true. Although the Illinois senator has been inconsistent in his statements about free trade -- recently telling Fortune magazine that some of his anti-NAFTA rhetoric in the primaries may have been "overheated" -- he has been consistent about the need to improve current and future free trade agreements, not eliminate them.

"I think there's not incompatible with us wanting to be tough negotiators and looking out for our interests and still being respectful of other countries and wanting to make sure that we've got strong economic ties, particularly between countries like Canada and Mexico that account for such a large amount of our trade," Obama said this week in response to a question about whether forcing trading partners to renegotiate agreements could be considered imperialist.

Through statements like this, Obama has tried to emphasize that he's not conceptually opposed to free trade. So where, then, do the two parties' presumptive nominees differ on the issue?

On his campaign plane, McCain agreed with the need to encourage America's neighbors and allies to adhere to stronger environmental standards, saying such agreements are of the "highest priority to protect our planet." But McCain doesn't seem to think that these issues are as integral to free trade as Obama does, and he's not willing to alter U.S. trading policy to press the issue upon allies.

While visiting Dell headquarters in Texas last February, McCain was asked what changes he would like to see in NAFTA. "I don't see any right now, to be honest with you," he said. "The point is not whether I want to renegotiate any terms, the point is whether you want to renegotiate or unilaterally announce that you are going to take certain action whether the Canadians happen to agree with it or not. That's the problem here, not whether parts need to be renegotiated."

So while Obama seems open to forcing the hands of the Canadian and Mexican governments in order to "make sure our labor standards or environmental standards aren't undermined," as he said this past week, McCain would like to fix these problems going forward and not retroactively.

"It is time for us to stress global agreements on environment and climate change everywhere in the world; we should certainly not confine it to Canada and Mexico," McCain told reporters on his plane. This would imply that he agrees with the premise of Obama's approach towards NAFTA: America's allies have to be pushed to uphold tougher environmental standards -- and, as he has implied in a speech on human trafficking in early May, human rights standards as well.

This means that the two candidates are much closer on free trade than McCain would have you think. Their differences seem to lie not in the ends but in the means.