Just in time, before the North American Free Trade Agreement is initialed tomorrow in the presence of the leaders of the United States, Mexico and Canada, Gov. Bill Clinton has announced his support for the treaty -- as written. This is a far cry from the demands of organized labor and Democratic protectionists in Congress for a renegotiation that, in effect, could kill the landmark pact.
To give himself political cover, the Democratic candidate for president tossed in all sorts of caveats and ambiguities that the Bush administration equates with holding the treaty hostage. Mr. Clinton insists, for example, that if he is elected he will not sign legislation to implement the treaty until some "supplemental agreements" are worked out with Mexico and various U.S. unilateral steps are taken to protect the environment and provide retraining for workers who lose their jobs for trade-related causes. This could cause trouble later.
But it in no way constitutes opposition to the pact itself, to the initialing ceremony tomorrow or to President Bush's anticipated signing of the pact in late December. Mr. Clinton claims to be a free trader, and in supporting NAFTA he not only envisaged more jobs for U.S. workers but took a poke at protectionists who have tried to make it "a symbol. . . of all our fears." "Some Democrats," he said at one point, "would say that freer trade today always equals exporting jobs and lower wages." Not so, argued the Arkansas governor, if the U.S. economy is run right.
Most of Mr. Clinton's hedging about the treaty is designed to put President Bush in a bad light or to soften the disappointment bound to be felt by House majority leader Dick Gephardt and other treaty opponents in Congress. Such tactics are to be expected in mid-campaign. The Mexicans seem to be seeing through the election smokescreen. La Jornada, a left-leaning paper, called the governor's move "a new, important wrapping up for the viability of this agreement." El Nacional, which is pro-government, said that in coming out for NAFTA the Democratic candidate prevailed over U.S. protectionists."
In any free trade treaty, there are trade-offs. There are gains and losses, winners and losers, all designed for the overall betterment of the nations involved. That's what trade negotiations are all about.
Just as President Kennedy once put a highly positive interpretation on Nikita Khruschev's blustering during the Cuba missile crisis, so American voters should ignore Mr. Clinton's nit-picking and accept his endorsement of the North American Free Trade Agreement as the kind of decision a president should make.