McCain, Obama Take Campaigns Abroad

Republican Sen. John McCain criticized his rival Democratic Sen. Barack Obama on a recent trip to Colombia and Mexico. Obama, meanwhile, is pledging to visit Europe, the Middle East and Iraq before November elections. Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution and Jesus Esquivel, of Mexico's Proceso political magazine, discuss campaigning abroad.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

As we just mentioned, presidential candidate Senator John McCain traveled to Columbia earlier this week. He's now in Mexico wrapping up a three-day overseas tour, and his rival, Senator Barack Obama, has pledged to visit Europe, the Middle East and Iraq before the election. We wanted to talk more about the significance of presidential candidates' trips abroad. So we asked Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus of government studies from the Brookings Institution to check in with us, along with Jesus Esquivel, the Washington correspondent for Mexico's Proceso Magazine. It's a political journal. Welcome to you both, thanks for stopping.

Mr. STEPHEN HESS (Senior Fellow Emeritus of Government Studies, Brookings Institution): Thank you, Michel.

Mr. JESUS ESQUIVEL (Washington Correspondent, Proceso Magazine): Yes. Thank you.

MARTIN: Stephen, it's good to talk to you again.

Mr. HESS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Is it - is it customary for candidates or presumed candidates, as we've been calling them, to make a point of traveling overseas during the campaign, or is this something unusual?

Mr. HESS: No. This is quite standard if you drew a flight plan to get to be president, you would include some international travel. And nothing unique about this year, although there's something unique about where they're going. Usually the road trip historically is a three I circuit, Ireland, Italy, and Israel. Obviously the reason is obvious. You're trying to - the candidate is trying to show respect to mother countries of Americans who are of large voting block. But also again, depending on the candidate's own background, it's one of those things you check off on your list to show your qualities to be president - knowledge of international affairs.

MARTIN: How do you think, Jesus, Senator McCain visit's being received in Mexico, and what message do you think that he's projecting?

Mr. HESS: Yeah, I think his...

MARTIN: Sorry, I was asking Jesus...

Mr. HESS: I think a rather unique, Michel, at least as I interpreted it. And I didn't think it was unwise to take a quick trip at least to Colombia, because there is a very basic difference in the philosophy and in the programs and in the proposals of the two candidates on the question of trade. One is clearly for more free trade. One is considered more a protectionist, and going there especially before an important senate vote would accent this difference.

Now obviously, I think that very few people notice this, partly because the hostage release in Colombia. But also because at the same time, he topped his own story by reorganizing his campaign. So, I don't know very many - that many people notice why he went, or what the utility was in terms of presidential politics.

MARTIN: Jesus, how do you think Senator McCain's visit to Mexico is being received? And do Mexican politicians do this? Do they travel? I'm sorry, I was asking Jesus. Steven, I'm sorry. Steven I was asking Jesus, the other guest to come in.

Mr. ESQUIVEL: Well, Michel, I think Senator McCain is trying to portray himself as a politician that he really cares about the Latin-American, and especially to the Mexican issues. Right now, he's going to talk in Mexico with the president about immigration and the war on drugs that are very important issues for the Mexicans and also for us.

Some Hispanics in the U.S. who are going to vote in these elections are - some of them are Mexicans. They're born in Mexico, but now they are U.S. citizens by naturalization. So they really care about what American politicians think on Mexican issues.

And it's very important to listen to what Senator McCain's going to say in Mexico, because at the beginning of last year he was in favor of immigration reform to help illegal immigrants in the U.S. And now as a Republican candidate, he's opposing to the same plan he, with Senator Kennedy, trying to form in the capital here.

MARTIN: We only have 30 seconds in this segment. We're going to take a short break, but if Barack Obama does not go to Mexico. will that be noticed in Mexico?

Mr. ESQUIVEL: Apparently, he's going to be in Mexico in September. It was a press conference yesterday by his campaign, and they were telling us that he's planning to go to Mexico in September, and Latin America.

MARTIN: We're going to pause here for a short break. And when we come back, we're going to continue our discussion with our two guests about presidential candidates campaigning abroad. We'll be back in a moment.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We're going to continue with our international briefing with a discussion about presidential candidates campaigning abroad. With us are Stephen Hess from the Brookings Institution, and Jesus Esquivel from Mexico's Proceso magazine. It's a political journal.

Jesus, let's talk more about the messages that each candidate has been delivering, particularly to Latin American and to Central America. They've talked a lot about CFTA and NAFTA. What is each candidate saying, and are sharp distinctions being heard in the region between the two?

Mr. ESQUIVEL: Well, Senator McCain has already said that he's planning to continue with this idea - free trade with Latin America, Colombia, Panama, and trying to continue with a plan that was draft fifteen years ago by former President Clinton - the free trade area of the Americas.

And in contrast, Senator Obama has been talking about if he's selected president of the U.S. to go to Mexico and Canada first and talk to the leaders of those countries and try to open NAFTA during negotiation chapters.

But it's been taken in Mexico as a real threat, and - but they know, too, that they are candidates. And you know, candidates and politicians, when they are trying to be presidents elected somewhere, they talk too much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ESQUIVEL: And sometimes, it's not true what they say. They just try to get some votes. So Mexico has been very careful about it, but it is a really concern about what Senator Obama is saying about NAFTA.

MARTIN: Stephen, you mentioned earlier that there is something - the choice of destination for overseas travel during the campaign does signal a kind of a difference. That it used to be the three I's - Israel, Italy, Ireland, and that going to - making a point of going to Latin America, Central America does signal a sort of - a shift. If you'd talk just a little bit more about that.

Mr. HESS: I should've mentioned that and I'm glad you did. Of course, the election is changing in the United States. The very large influx, becoming the second largest minority group of Latin-Americans. And just going to have to add, Ireland, Italy, Israel, and Latin America in the future, no question about that.

Now of course, Barack Obama's trip are a very different nature. I understand Iraq, Jordan and Israel, and that reflects more question of where the hot spots in the world are, and what a potential president is expected to know about those places. So that's more in the nature of an on-the-ground fact finding.

Won't be many facts that he doesn't already know, but the media will presumably follow everything he says and all of the briefings he goes through when he gets particularly to places where there are large numbers of American troops.

MARTIN: Stephen, let's talk a little bit more about - you're speaking about the question of following everything that somebody says. Let's talk about the question of using an international trip to criticize a political rival. Senator McCain had said before his trip to Colombia that he would not publicly criticize Senator Obama on foreign soils. Saying that partisanship ends at the water's edge is an expression that we all know.

But then he did on the way there on the plane criticize Mr. Obama in his session with reporters. Is that a distinction without a difference? Do you think people notice that anymore? Or do you just think - just perceived as, you know, an extension of domestic politics?

Mr. HESS: I think that was probably a poor form. Although, hey, these folks are in a very competitive situation right now. And for two candidates who claim that we were going to be in the post-partisan era, everything they have done in the last three weeks has been otherwise. So, it's - I'd say that it's a nice rule of thumb not to criticize your opponent while you're abroad. But this is beginning to look like an election where anything goes.

MARTIN: And Jesus, I wanted to ask about the - this using a sort of an international trip to sort of score domestic sort of political points. How is that received in the countries that are being visited? Do people mind that? Do they mind sort of being a backdrop for this, or do they just appreciate that as a sign of respect, commitment, interest?

Mr. ESQUIVEL: They appreciate the reciprocal. Obviously, we want to see, finally, the American politics are going to put attention to Latin America and Mexico, especially. Right now, for example, everybody's talking about the immigration as the main topic of Senator McCain visit to Mexico.

But I think the government of Felipe Calderon is really concerned about what the two candidates are offering in terms of the war on drugs. It's a very complicated issue - the main concern for the Mexican citizens.

So we are expecting to hear something seriously about the issue by the two candidates. Not just talking about immigration because we know the legislation has to be approved by Congress, not by the White House.

So, and I think the Hispanic people is - whose health as Mexicans are really concerned about it, too, because it's so complicated and has been forgotten in the last seven years by the U.S. government - the war on drugs.

MARTIN: And what about - and Jesus, just briefly, I'm also curious about the fact that Senator McCain criticized the Colombian government over human rights issues, which is something that a lot of Americans are concerned about.

A lot of Americans are also concerned about whether Mexico is seriously fighting the drug war. They're concerned about the situation of Theodore Suarez(ph). How is it received when candidates go to another country and kind of call them out on some of their issues?

Mr. ESQUIVEL: Well, first of all, the Mexican society is very picky in terms of - if Americans criticize some issues that has been forgotten by our own governments. And human rights, it's a very important issue for Mexicans right now and in Colombia too. But Senator McCain has always been a kind of friend to Mexico and to Latin-America.

He understands the issues. He understands how difficult it is to talk about some internal Mexican matters, especially if it has been discussed in the U.S. government. So I believe that Mexicans are really appreciating the matter that Senator McCain is talking about, a very difficult issue that sometimes the Mexican government doesn't want to talk about it.

MARTIN: Stephen Hess, is there any downside to this overseas travel? For example, you know, in the last election the Republicans made great sport of John Kerry for being popular in France.

Mr. HESS: I was just thinking of what I said - I'm glad you asked that, because I think I probably sounded more cynical than I truly am about this. International travel by legislators clearly has a bad odor. It's called "junketing" by the media, and so forth. And there are legislators and their congressional trips in the Paris nightclubs. But in truth, overwhelmingly, the legislators who go learn something and they take in serious briefings and they do see the scene.

And I think that should be encouraged, and I think the press really discourages it by making it look like a big joy ride. It honestly isn't, and it is very good for American legislators to learn something about the rest of the world.

MARTIN: But do you - but is there any political danger? Perhaps if they're too well received, for example, that there are some who are - there seems to be the sort of Internet campaign against Obama questioning his - you know, whether he's really American. And if - I just wonder, if he's too well received overseas, does that play into a stereotype?

Mr. HESS: Oh, well, that could, as you well know. He is a - particularly in Europe, the popular candidate. He is the - he is the one who, if the election were being held in the European Union, would overwhelmingly be elected. And that will be noted by some.

But I think at the same time, there are a lot of people that think, hey, the U.S. could use a good shot in the arm in terms of its popularity in the rest of the world. And if he contributes to that, that's an important characteristic.

MARTIN: Stephen Hess is a senior fellow emeritus of government studies at the Brookings Institution. It's one of our country's oldest research institutes. He spoke to us by phone from his home in Washington.

Jesus Esquivel is the Washington Correspondent for Mexico's Proceso magazine. He joined us in our Washington studios. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. ESQUIVEL: Thank you, Michel.

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