By signing the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, President Bush has done President-elect Clinton a favor -- a favor akin to handing a hungry man a very hot potato. Mr. Clinton has a pact he describes as "an important step toward the economic integration of North America" but he also has the burden of getting it through Congress in short order.
Jesse Jackson, no particular friend of Mr. Clinton, has fired a salvo at the treaty by saying it "represents the failed policies of a defeated [Bush] administration." Which causes us to wonder what Ron Brown, Mr. Jackson's one-time campaign manager and Mr. Clinton's secretary-designate of Commerce, thinks about this explosive issue. His department has a big say in trade policy.
During the campaign, Mr. Clinton disappointed the labor and environmental movements by giving his approval to the pact -- as written. To be sure, he raised conditions that will require legislation by Congress and ancillary agreements with Mexico. But on the key demand for renegotiation of the pact, Mr. Clinton (to his great credit) said no.
The president-elect's intellectual allies in the centrist Democratic Leadership Council have issued a manifesto so favorable to NAFTA it could have been written by the Bush administration. They describe NAFTA as "beneficial to the U.S." They say it "safeguards strategic interests in our own hemisphere" and "over time should produce a net gain of jobs for the U.S., . . . help improve working conditions in Mexico [and] stem the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico."
However, the treaty with Mexico creates far more problems for a Democratic than for a Republican president. While it clearly increases total income in the United States, it redistributes this income across the economy in painful ways. Farmers who grow temperate-zone crops and exporters of products requiring highly skilled workers are the winners; factories that make low-skill products or farmers who grow warm-weather crops are the losers. Because Americans at the lower end of the wage scale tilt Democratic, Mr. Clinton is almost bound to offend key constituents.
Nevertheless, a new Democratic president on a honeymoon should have an easier time on Capitol Hill than a Republican. Provided, he is willing to spend political capital. The AFL-CIO is behind a huge anti-NAFTA ad campaign that is just starting. It is charging, in the Ross Perot mode, that the treaty will send U.S. jobs south of the border, reduce U.S. wages and curtail U.S. product and environmental standards. The pact is not a done deal.
Fancy footwork and ardent massage will be required of the new president. If he gives it his all and succeeds, the way could be paved for completion of long-delayed worldwide reforms being negotiated under the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade. This could be one of Bill Clinton's more illustrious achievements. We wish him well as he handles the NAFTA hot potato.