WASHINGTON -- For months, supporters of the North American Free Trade Agreement have watched with frustration as critics have chipped away at the treaty as a jobs killer, thereby eroding its support in Congress.
Supporters longed for a president willing to use the White House "bully pulpit" to fight for the agreement, which would create the world's largest free-trade zone. Yesterday, they got more than they bargained for: Four -- count 'em -- presidents joined forces at the White House to praise the agreement, denounce its opponents and pledge to fight for its passage.
President Clinton signed side-agreements to the treaty that would eliminate virtually all trade barriers between Canada, Mexico and the United States over 15 years in the presence of Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush, the man who negotiated the treaty and lost to Mr. Clinton in November.
Mr. Clinton, leading the charge, acknowledged that in the short run some Americans might lose their jobs because of the agreement but said it would create more jobs than it would cost because Mexico's vast and growing market would finally be open to U.S. manufacturers.
Opposition is rooted in "fears and insecurities that are legitimately gripping the great American middle class," the president said. But he also warned that some economic dislocation will come anyway -- and that without the treaty the consequences would be much worse.
"Nothing we do in this great capital can change the fact that factories or information can flash across the world; that people can move money around in the blink of an eye . . . that technology can be rapidly adapted in new and different ways," Mr. Clinton said. "This debate about NAFTA is a debate about whether we will embrace these changes and create the jobs of tomorrow, or try to resist these changes, hoping we can preserve the economic structures of yesterday."
In a response to a range of critics including Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, leaders of organized labor, left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans, Mr. Clinton asserted that NAFTA would create 200,000 American jobs in two years -- and 1 million jobs over the next five years.
"The White House and the NAFTA supporters are panicking," said opponent Pat Choate, a Washington economist who has co-written -- with Mr. Perot -- a book attacking the treaty. "They are starting to make absurd claims."
The million-job estimate was vastly more optimistic than any previous claim, and the White House press office swiftly retracted it, issuing a statement saying that it resulted from an error by a staff member.
That glitch did little to take away from the significance of the event, however.
I= Mr. Clinton was lukewarm on NAFTA when he was running for
president. And in the Oval Office, he has rarely mentioned NAFTA except when asked about it.
But the fence-sitting is over.
Not only did Mr. Clinton direct and star in an extraordinary media event for the signing of the side agreements, but he pounded the podium when he spoke, served notice that he will hit the hustings -- a trip is scheduled for Louisiana today -- to promote the plan and gave supporters hope that their side will start to assert itself.
"I thought President Clinton was outstanding," said Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer. "He put it on the line today."
Even NAFTA's bitterest opponents conceded that the battle with the Clinton White House has now been officially joined -- and will be harder fought from now on.
"He crossed his Rubicon," said Mr. Choate. "He's committed now in a big way. He's going to be tearing arms off of members of Congress."
Maryland's political leadership is fairly typical of what Mr. Clinton faces. Mr. Schaefer is firmly on board in favor of NAFTA -- along with 41 other governors.
But despite charts that Mr. Schaefer carried with him to the White House showing that exports to Mexico from Maryland-based firms have increased 300 percent in the last five years, Maryland's congressional delegation is hardly in Mr. Clinton's corner.
Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes has taken no position but is considered by the White House to be skittish because he is up for re-election next year. Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who has close ties to organized labor, has expressed skepticism, too.
House Republicans Helen Delich Bentley and Roscoe Bartlett have come out in opposition, and in the entire delegation, the only member who has expressed unreserved support is Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore. And he hardly sounds enthusiastic.
"I think it's sinking right now," Mr. Gilchrest said. "I've talked to Republican members who were for it. Now they say they are against it. They still believe in NAFTA but say it's too difficult to explain in their districts. If the president comes out and pushes and Ross Perot is discredited, there is time . . . to pull people back."
Mr. Clinton, as if speaking directly to Mr. Gilchrest, pledged yesterday to be a supporter "every step of the way."
"This is not a time for defeatism," he said. "We can win this."