NAFTA HOT TOPIC IN S.C. PRIMARY DEBATE
Byline: Joyce Barrett
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Leading Republican presidential candidates, debating trade here Thursday, took aim at the North American Free Trade Agreement — either the pact itself or the way it’s being administered.
In line with his usual anti-free trade stance, Patrick J. Buchanan described NAFTA as a “metastasizing cancer that is eating out the heart of America.”
Candidate Steve Forbes, who is advertising heavily in this state where the textile industry is the major employer, charged that neither the Clinton administration nor the Mexican government “had lived up to the spirit of NAFTA.” The U.S. bailout of the faltering Mexican government after the peso devaluation of December 1994 made U.S. goods too expensive for the Mexican market, he said, and made it easier for Mexican products to get into the United States.
“That is wrong,” Forbes said. Forbes went on, however, to praise trade agreements for reducing trade barriers and enhancing U.S. competitiveness abroad.
Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, the front-runner according to political polls here for Saturday’s primary vote, lashed out at the Clinton administration for not enforcing all provisions in recent trade agreements.
“If we would enforce our agreements, we wouldn’t lose textile jobs in South Carolina,” Dole said.
But he pointed out, “South Carolina has increased its exports to Mexico by 65 percent. We need to trade; we can’t build a wall around America.”
The debate took place at a session organized by the South Carolina Business and Industrial Political Education Committee.
Lamar Alexander, former Tennessee governor who is generally seen as running fourth in the Republican presidential sweepstakes, told Buchanan that he was good at identifying the problem but had “offered no single solution” to the initial negative aspects of freer trade, which include layoffs in some sectors. Instead, Alexander said that governments should work to attract foreign investments to create jobs.
U.S. trade policies have become the linchpin of candidate debate in South Carolina, which houses industries that have seen their market share erode because of imports, such as textiles. South Carolina also is home to an increasing amount of foreign investment and was described by Forbes as a showcase of how to attract foreign dollars and jobs to the U.S.
The first primary in the South, the outcome of South Carolina’s vote Saturday is seen as make-or-break for Dole’s campaign, which has only won primaries so far in North and South Dakota. Buchanan is banking on the large contingent of Christian Coalition members and disgruntled textile workers to provide him the boost he needs to win here. Forbes and Alexander are not viewed as likely victors.
The candidates’ sparring over trade was spurred by the airing of a Buchanan television advertisement during the debate that said recent “unfair trade deals are destroying our jobs,” and reducing wages of U.S. workers. Buchanan said that “NAFTA was a lousy deal to begin with.”
Buchanan, pointing to last year’s merchandise trade deficit of $175 billion, also said that he agreed with “fair and free trade with free and fair traders like Germany, England and Europe. But I do not believe in being a wimp when you’ve got a country like China that puts a 40 percent tariff on American goods. You have got to be tough and you have to break open foreign markets. We have to get rid of these monster trade deficits.”
Among business leaders in attendance was Walter Elisha, chairman and chief executive officer of Springs Industries, who said that Dole has “enormous support from the mainstream Republican Party” and predicted he would win the state primary.
Ron Sorini, vice president, international affairs, for Fruit of the Loom, visiting the state for the primary and wearing a Dole campaign pin, said he thought that Dole won the verbal sparring.
John Duncan, vice president and general manager of Arkwright Mills, said he was still undecided about where his vote was going, but noted that Dole appeared the most likely to win the state. In regard to Buchanan’s trade policies, Duncan was of the opinion that Buchanan had “made some good points. Our federal government has been giving away our industry for the past 20 years.”