It's NAFTA, Stupid


Having demonstrated he can prevail over united Republicans to get his budget passed, President Clinton now has the more awkward task of controlling divided Democrats in a showdown on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

This will be his preeminent challenge on Capitol Hill for the rest of the year. Not only is his position within his own party at issue: so, too, is his world prestige as foreign governments weigh his ability to come through on a treaty essential to the best government Mexico has ever had.

For this reason, Mr. Clinton's insistence on a barrage of September proposals starting with Al Gore's "re-inventing goverment" plan today looks risky. On the crowded agenda will be national service, lobbying disclosure, campaign financing and anti-crime measures, all culminating in a presidential address on health care financing reforms.

White House officials figure all but NAFTA are fairly popular, mainstream proposals. They want to re-invent Bill Clinton as the new Democrat he says he is and put behind them the tax-and-spend Democrat who had a tough first half year in office. But if NAFTA is as high a priority with the president as he says it is, you have to wonder when and how the focus will come. Though he defied organized labor and the environmental movement to support a treaty initiated by President Bush, he has not even begun a high-visibility fight for NAFTA. And under special procedures, both houses of Congress will have to vote on the treaty with no amendments allowed by the end of the year.

House Democratic whip David Bonior of Michigan has vowed to use all the levers of his office to defeat his own president. His boss, House majority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, has come out against the treaty but is still bargaining with the White House. Then there is Ross Perot, despite administration rebuttals to his error-prone book.

The most compelling rationale for the administration's strategy of tossing NAFTA into the midst of an overloaded agenda is that the treaty can best be defended on broad economic and security grounds but is vulnerable to nit-picking by special interests. Therefore, the less debate the better.

This approach, however, allows the likes of Sen. Barbara Mikulski to tell a Baltimore business executive that "with NAFTA comes the potential loss of American jobs due to, among other things, cheap Mexican labor costs and lax enforcement of environmental standards by the Mexican government."

Senator Mikulski should not be allowed to get away with this. In a free trade environment, market forces create more jobs, and higher-paying jobs, than they push elsewhere. As for low wage ** and environmental standards in Mexico, does Senator Mikulski contend that defeat of NAFTA would raise those standards? Rubbish. This is the kind of Ross Perot demagogy that the president himself needs to confront head on, day after day, with the passion and concentration that the transformation of the North American economy demands and deserves.

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