John McCain Fought the Good Fight on Trade and Immigration

Senator John McCain was a hero in wartime and he was a hero in defending the freedom of Americans to trade with the rest of the world and to welcome immigrants to the United States.

While he confessed that he was not an expert on economic policy, McCain understood instinctively that embracing more openness to trade and immigration was profoundly in America’s economic and foreign policy interests. He truly put his country first, ahead of special interest deals and tribal politics.

McCain’s voting record during his six terms in the Senate was strongly pro-trade (see the Cato Institute’s compilation of congressional trade votes). He voted in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Uruguay Round Agreements Act that established the World Trade Organization, permanent normal trade relations for China and for Vietnam, and a number of other free trade agreements. He opposed scandalous sugar quotas, farm subsidies, and abuse of antidumping laws.

McCain’s support for normalizing trade relations with Vietnam was one of his finer moments. Whatever one thinks of the Vietnam War, McCain’s service was admirable. He flew dangerous missions over North Vietnam before being shot down in 1967 and survived five and a half years of captivity and torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese. Despite that traumatic experience, he teamed up with another Vietnam War veteran, Senator John Kerry (D-MA), to champion the normalization of trade and diplomatic ties with Vietnam in the 1990s.

Another highlight of McCain’s career was his leadership in Congress to repeal the protectionist Jones Act that stifles competition for inter-coastal shipping and shipbuilding in the United States. This was a matter of principle for McCain. This century-old law passed in the name of national security is nothing more than a symbol of special interest cronyism at the expense of the national interest.

One moment on the campaign trail beautifully captures McCain’s legendary candor and his clear thinking on trade. While he was running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000, a laid-off worker at a closed textile mill asked him if the worker’s son would be able to find the same kind of work. McCain could have offered a platitude about defending jobs against unfair trade. Instead, he told the worker that we should aspire for our children to work in the growing high-tech industry rather than an obsolete mill. This was straight-taking John McCain at his best.

On immigration reform, McCain worked across the aisle with Democrats and like-minded Republicans to advance reforms that would have expanded channels for legal immigration. As our experience as a nation has shown, the most cost-effective way to reduce illegal immigration is to expand channels for the legal entry of workers, both high-skilled and less-skilled. And the most humane and realistic way of reducing the existing illegal immigrant population is through earned legalization rather than mass deportations.

McCain saw immigrants as a source of strength for American society and the economy. He led efforts in the Senate to pass immigration reform in 2006, 2007, and again in 2013, only to see two Senate bills die in the GOP-controlled House. He did soft-pedal his commitment to immigration reform during some tough primary seasons, but he never stooped to the anti-immigrant demagoguery that unfortunately runs strong in current GOP politics.

I didn’t agree with everything McCain championed. He could be petty in his politics and too enamored by media attention. His pursuit of “campaign finance reform” in the early 2000s was naïve and insensitive to basic American freedoms of speech and association, and was rightly thwarted by the courts. But his integrity, character, and commitment to the national good were never in question.

Like Ronald Reagan, John McCain believed that America stands as a beacon of liberty for all people, no matter what their race or background. He represented a Republican Party built, not on identity politics and suspicion of outsiders, but on the ideas of freedom, limited government, and confident engagement with the world.

Photo credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP/Shutterstock