WASHINGTON. — Washington. -- Can anything that Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown, organized labor and Pat Buchanan oppose be all bad? For that matter, can anything that big business, the five living former presidents, the Wall Street Journal and the current president favor be all good?
Welcome to the politics of the North American Free Trade Agreement, better known as "NAFTA" for short, or "Nafta," as -- the Journal and New York Times curiously style it.
Opposition to the trade pact has been building all summer, peaking with such serious defections as Michigan's David Bonior, the House Democratic whip, while President Clinton went golfing at Martha's Vineyard.
With Democrats, who should be supporting their president, lining up against the measure, which was initiated under President Bush, Republicans can't lose. If it passes, they can claim credit. If it fails, Mr. Clinton takes the blame.
How did Mr. Clinton get into this predicament? Instead of showing some leadership on an issue about which most Americans remain deeply uncertain, he went squishy.
In the heat of last year's campaign, his support of the trade agreement helped him stand as a new-wave, freewheeling, free-trade, free-market New Democrat, firmly in contrast to Jerry Brown and other traditional anti-NAFTA labor Democrats.
More recently caught up in budgets, health care and efforts to "grow the economy," he has treated NAFTA in interviews as an afterthought, at best, sort of like Bosnia, not something to which he has been giving high priority.
Meanwhile, the trade pact has been getting beat up -- unfairly, in my view.
Ross Perot is backing up his memorable line about how "that giant sucking sound you hear" is jobs heading for Mexico with his new book "Save Your Job, Save Our Country -- Why NAFTA Must Be Stopped Now!"
His cause has been joined by Pat Buchanan's anti-foreigner wing of the Republican Party and other unusual allies. Anti-NAFTA union leaders see any easing of barriers as a threat to their bargaining power.
Jesse Jackson, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and other civil-rights veterans allied with organized labor see NAFTA as a threat to low-wage-earning minorities, who always get tossed first and longest by shifting economic winds. Mr. Jackson's factions and Mr. Buchanan's companions may also be united by another common cause: their barely concealed desire to stick it to their old political rival Bill Clinton.
Ironically, Mr. Clinton has allowed some of NAFTA's hottest opposition to build without response in the very areas of the country that NAFTA would benefit, all because the Clinton administration has pretty much allowed only one side -- the side that opposes NAFTA -- to get out.
There is another side. For example: Mr. Perot uses statistics gathered by Pat Choate, a Washington-based political economist of a protectionist bent, that say NAFTA will put 5.9 million U.S. jobs in jeopardy of moving to Mexico.
But, as Clinton spokespeople have been pointing up since last spring, Mr. Choate arrived at his jarring figure by adding up every job in U.S. industries where labor costs account for at least 20 percent of total expenses and the average wage exceeds $7 an hour. He apparently presumed that all such businesses are just waiting for NAFTA to give them the go-ahead to flee the country in search of cheaper labor south of the border.
Well, to paraphrase another Perot line, it's NOT just that simple.
First, American companies that want to move jobs to Mexico can do it now. Mexico encourages them to do so and the U.S. government does little to stop them.
Second, if cheap labor alone determined a company's location, they'd all move to Haiti.
Third, NAFTA would encourage job growth in the U.S. by lifting Mexico's trade restrictions that have prevented jobs from developing here in the United States.
One example, Edwin L. Artzt, CEO at Procter & Gamble, expects NAFTA will mean about 2,000 new jobs for his company. Similar happy forecasts come from Eastman Kodak and other manufacturing and agricultural companies.
Here's why. Mexico enjoys virtually unlimited access to U.S. consumers, while its tariffs on our products remain, on average, two and a half times higher than ours, according to administration trade officials. With NAFTA, U.S. companies would no longer be forced to move to Mexico to conduct business there. Inequities in working and environmental conditions can be improved, not left to languish in the status quo Mr. Perot seems intent on maintaining.
What does Mexico get out of the deal? Economic stability, for starters. Tied to the strongest economy in the hemisphere, its peso could stabilize, investors could be reassured and its growth could improve.
As its name implies, a North American Free Trade Agreement would turn the United States, Canada and Mexico into a giant trading bloc that could compete more vigorously with the emerging 21st-century trading blocs of the European Community and the Pacific Rim.
At last, President Clinton appears to have been jerked alert by mounting opposition. Just before the Labor Day weekend, Mickey Kantor, the president's trade representative, launched a counter-offensive with a 74-page itemized rebuttal of Mr. Perot's book. The White House image team has set NAFTA to be the theme of the week when the treaty goes to Congress next Tuesday.
If the U.S. economy was booming, I think NAFTA would be an easy sell. Instead, we have a "jobless recovery," a kinder, gentler form of recession, that has left Americans too uncertain of their futures to eagerly jump into any new risks. Clinton has yet to provide the leadership that can help Americans overcome their fears about NAFTA. Maybe he still has too many of his own.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.