McCain speaks on energy, taxes, Iraq, immigration at Baker Institute town hall forum

McCain speaks on energy, taxes, Iraq, immigration at Baker Institute town hall forum

Rice News Staff

With less than a week until the Texas primary, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain told an audience Feb. 28 at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy that he has the experience and knowledge to lead the country.

McCain said he looks forward to doing well in the Lone Star State March 4, but expects former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to remain in the race.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain spoke at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public
Policy Feb. 28.

The forum at James A. Baker III Hall was open to Rice students, faculty, staff and guests invited by the university, along with the news media. Rice and the Baker Institute invited McCain, Democratic U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republicans Huckabee and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul to speak at town hall forums here. McCain is the first to accept the invitation, said President David Leebron in his welcoming remarks.

Introduced as a “consensus builder” by former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who is honorary chair of the Baker Institute, McCain spoke about energy, taxes, Iraq and immigration.

The senior senator from Arizona began with energy and climate change, which he termed “compelling” issues of national security. The Unites States, he said, sends $400 billion overseas to pay for energy, some of which goes to “countries that don’t like us very much.” That poses a danger to the U.S., he said.

“I believe that climate change is real,” McCain said, citing “overwhelming” scientific evidence. But the United States possesses the technology and the spirit of innovation to deal with energy dependence and global warming, he said.

Pointing to a major difference with both front-runners for the Democratic Party, McCain said he supports free trade. Governments that have practiced protectionism in the past have paid a heavy price, he argued. And he added that the North American Free Trade Agreement has created jobs in the U.S. and has benefited Canada and Mexico as well. He called for more free-trade agreements, specifically urging passage of a proposed treaty with Colombia.

On taxes, McCain said he would make President George Bush’s tax cuts permanent and cut corporate taxes, which he said were the second highest in the industrialized world after Japan. He also attacked the alternative minimum tax and called for its repeal. “I’m not going to raise anybody’s taxes,” he said.

From left, Sen. John McCain is accompanied by President David Leebron and Honorary Baker Institute Chair James A. Baker III.

McCain returned to the debate over Iraq several times during his speech and in questions from the audience. He continued his back-and-forth with Obama over al-Qaida in Iraq, which has featured prominently in the news in recent days. McCain criticized Obama earlier this week for pledging to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq but maintain a military presence to combat a possible resurgence by al-Qaida. Obama responded by saying al-Qaida had no presence in Iraq until after the U.S. invaded the country. That’s “history,” McCain said at the Baker Institute event. He argued that since al-Qaida had emerged as a force inside Iraq, the United States is obliged to remain in the country because several al-Qaida leaders have said they would “tell the world they have defeated the U.S.” and would “follow us home.”

McCain referred to his oft-stated position that he would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war, and called “radical Islamic extremism” the “transcendent evil of our time.” He said the U.S. military escalation in Iraq over the last year has led to success, and he pledged to continue to back that strategy. “We will win the war pretty soon,” McCain said, meaning U.S. troops will be able to withdraw to bases to keep the situation under control and then decide on the future of a U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Sen. John McCain is the first of the presidential candidates to accept Rice’s invitation to speak at a town hall forum.

Asked about the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the broader issue of prisoner treatment, McCain called for the closure of the controversial facility. The prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay should be moved to a military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., he said, and the judicial process should be accelerated. He also said the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad has been al-Qaida’s best recruiting tool and vowed, “We will never torture a prisoner in American custody again.”

McCain acknowledged last year’s defeat of the comprehensive immigration bill he supported, saying, “We failed because Americans want border security first.” He said he still believes in a comprehensive approach, including a viable temporary-worker program and a way to deal with the millions of immigrants already living in the country, but now backs securing the nation’s borders first.

Responding to a question about the tightrope he walks between the Republican Party’s conservative base and the moderates and independents seen as key to a general election victory, McCain said, “I understand the challenge, but I have to secure the nomination first.” He promised to run a “respectful debate” against a Democratic rival, should he be the Republican nominee.

Reviewing a number of Arizonans who have waged futile campaigns for the presidency — including Barry Goldwater, Morris Udall and Bruce Babbitt — McCain joked that Arizona may be the only state where mothers don’t tell their children they can grow up to be president. But he concluded he was confident he could inspire Americans to support “a cause greater than themselves.”

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