WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton addressed the fall meeting of the Democratic National Committee here the other day, he made an eloquent pitch for his health-care reform package and urged his party brethren to commit their efforts to its passage. The committee obligingly and unanimously passed a resolution calling it "one of the most important initiatives for American families in decades" and urging Congress to enact it.
Health-care reform, as the DNC members well know, is one of the two top priority legislative undertakings of the Clinton administration, along with congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But the president said not a word about NAFTA in his speech and no resolution was offered within the committee calling for Congress to sign on.
This conspicuous non-expression of support for the controversial trade agreement was a clear recognition by DNC Chairman David Wilhelm that the issue, unlike health-care reform, has split the national party committee as deeply as it has affected the Democratic constituency at large. The decision was to let this particular sleeping dog lie.
But one committee member, Frank Garrison of Michigan, decided to give it a gentle poke anyway. Garrison is state president of the AFL-CIO, which is one of the strongest voices in Democratic politics in Michigan, where organized labor is particularly vociferous against NAFTA as a threat to union jobs in the state's huge automotive industry.
When White House Deputy Chief of Staff Roy Neel finished addressing the DNC's executive committee and invited questions, Garrison piped up with what he called a little "constructive criticism." He told Neel point-blank: "NAFTA is wrong. I hope we'll do the administration a favor and defeat it."
There was a brief smattering of applause in the audience, but Garrison's suggestion was met with stony silence by Wilhelm and others around the squared committee table. Neel finally acknowledged that Garrison and the White House were in disagreement on NAFTA but that in the spirit of unity that prevailed in the party they could get along "by agreeing to disagree" and move on to other issues.
Later, Garrison said he was well satisfied that the DNC didn't bring up NAFTA at the meeting "because this party is on record against NAFTA." He noted that the committee had taken a position against it when then-President George Bush was seeking congressional approval for "fast-track" consideration of the agreement, and that as far as he was concerned, that opposition still stood as the party position.
Aside from Garrison's intrusion, the DNC treated NAFTA at the meeting like an unsavory family member who had disappeared. The focus instead was on the current favorite child, health care, on which there are differences in approach but no voices of dissent about the need for basic reform. When we asked Heather Booth, a usually outspoken liberal activist now helping to sell the administration plan, about NAFTA, she smiled and replied: "Let me tell you about health care."
Don Fowler, a longtime national committeeman from South Carolina, said not saying anything about NAFTA at the meeting was "exactly the right way to do it" because the party so obviously is split on the issue. "It would serve no symbolic or real purpose to go through a debate on it here," he said. "There are no votes here and the debate is going on in Congress."
Fowler said the two major textile companies in his own state are split over NAFTA and the state's congressional delegation is likely to be split as well. With such mixed reactions within states and regions on the issue, he said, whether Clinton wins $l congressional approval or not is not likely to affect his leadership within the party.
Another DNC member, James Ruvolo of Ohio, agreed. Winning or losing on NAFTA, he said, "is more a Washington game than a real world game. He [Clinton] has to win health care." Organized labor, which is strong in Ohio, obviously is against NAFTA, Ruvolo said, but will be back aboard the Clinton bandwagon on (( health care. And so, with the exception of Garrison's "constructive criticism," NAFTA at this particular meeting was the issue that wasn't there.