REDMOND, WA — In his second major policy speech in less than a week, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney left no doubt where he stood on the topic of today's address: trade.
"I'm a big free trade guy. I like free trade." Romney said "I'm going to push free trade everywhere in the world we can achieve it"
Speaking from notes before a friendly office of 200 Microsoft employees on their sprawling campus here, Romney delved deeper into his beliefs on trade, first laid out in the jobs plan he presented in September.
The central tenets of Romney's trade policy: open up global markets for America's goods and services, enforce trade rules to keep free trade fair, and confront those who cheat on trade agreements, especially China, directly.
"We need to be far more aggressive in opening up markets for America's goods and services," Romney told the crowd - a goal he said he would achieve by pushing for more free trade agreements like those with South Korea, Panama and Columbia passed by congress this week.
"Thank heavens," Romney said, that those agreements were passed after "languishing" for three years under President Obama.
Romney praised his business-oriented audience, and lauded their productivity and innovation as proof that America can thrive in a free-trade world; if the rules are fair and enforced.
"As long as trade rules and regulations are fair," Romney said, "America can compete and can win anywhere in the world."
Romney said that deregulation, in reference to trade, was actually a misnomer.
"What we really should say is we want to have regulation up to date and modern, dynamic," Romney said, repeating a belief laid out in his book and frequently cited in his economic roundtables on the trail.
The biggest roadblock to more free trade, Romney argued, was rampant "cheating" by countries like China, that must be confronted.
"There is a huge advantage to cheating," Romney said. "China in particular has learned the extraordinary advantage of cheating. And it has had a positive effect on China, and a very seriously negative effect on us. "
Romney's views on how to confront that cheating, on a range of issues from intellectual property theft to China's manipulation of the Yuan, have been considered somewhat controversial. His desire to label China a currency manipulator on day one of his presidency has led some critics, including the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, to say he is stoking the possibility of a trade war. Romney pushed back against that argument today.
"There is some concern of course that if we got tough with China, and say 'Guys, you've just got to play by the rules. You've just got to abide by the agreements that you've entered into,' that if we do that they might retaliate with a trade war. And we don't want that, but we also don't want a trade surrender, which is what we're enduring." Romney said, adding "Right now we buy about $273 billion dollars more from China than they buy from us, every year. They don't have any interest in a trade war, given that kind of figure."
Romney called legislation just passed by the Senate to deal with the issue of China's currency "political theater", arguing that the president already has the power he needs to deal with China, he simply lacks the willpower.
"We don't need new legislation, we need a new president" Romney said.
Romney also plugged his plan to create a so-called "Reagan Free Trade Zone", in which countries that agreed to abide by higher standards for free and fair trade and the protection of intellectual property could enjoy a more robust trade relationship with the United States.
And on a day in which his lunchtime fundraiser was picketed by members of the anti-Wall Street "Occupy Seattle" movement, Romney also defended American business more broadly.
"I'm afraid in some corners, people don't like you very much. I'm not just talking about Microsoft. I'm talking about private sector individuals generally," Romney told the audience. "They feel somehow business is bad. That business people are bad. I don't dislike you, I love you. I appreciate what you do."
Prior to the speech, Romney met with a group of Microsoft executives, including CEO Steve Ballmer, for a private roundtable discussion about business and economic issues. He said Ballmer reminded him that when Romney was at Bain he once tried to recruit Ballmer to join the venture capital firm. Romney recalled telling Ballmer that the decision to work for the start-up Microsoft instead was "very high risk".
Romney joked that if Ballmer had accepted his offer to come to Bain instead, that the billionaire Ballmer might be "worth a million or two by now."