WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Clinton used his weekly radio program the other day to make his case for the North American Free Trade Agreement. But the president's pitch earned little attention because the press focus remained on more compelling events in Haiti.
There is now less than a month for the White House to gain enough votes in the House of Representatives to win approval for NAFTA, but the hurdles that must be passed are formidable. And one of them is the controversy over Clinton's policy toward Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti.
At the most obvious level, the lack of press attention to NAFTA is a problem that is likely to pass as the vote draws nearer next month. But the more fundamental question is whether Clinton will have the credibility on a foreign policy question to make a convincing case in those final days.
The arithmetic is no mystery. Although there have been some defections lately, there remain enough votes in the Senate for approval. But the White House is still short in the House, although it is not clear by how much because of uncertainty about some Republicans and the difficulty in determining how many Democrats remain genuinely undecided and how many are stalling.
Put another way, there are enough putatively undecided voters in the House to approve the treaty. But what is less obvious is how those potential supporters can be moved into the White House column.
The burdens under which the administration is conducting its campaign are imposing. Both House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt and Majority Whip David Bonior are against NAFTA, and although the speaker of the House, Tom Foley, favors the treaty, there is no evidence he is moving any votes his way.
More to the point, the White House is limited in the use of the normal levers of political power within the Democratic Party. In most cases like this, organized labor would be considered a valued ally who could be called upon for both money and manpower to help make the party's argument. But labor is adamantly opposed to NAFTA. And that means not only that unions cannot be helpful but that other arms of the administration, such as the Democratic National Committee, have to be extremely careful in making the case lest they offend important elements of the Democratic coalition whose help will be needed on other questions down the line, including health-care reform.
There is, however, some hope the administration can crystallize public opinion behind the treaty. Although polls show a narrow plurality against NAFTA, they also find a substantial bloc of voters -- perhaps one-third of the electorate -- who say they still don't have enough information about NAFTA to form an opinion.
This is a critical target group over the final month of the campaign for NAFTA. The theory within the administration is that if a clear popular majority can be enlisted behind the treaty, many of those undecided House members will have the political cover to vote for it.
The issue is one, both sides recognize, on which it is difficult if not impossible for laymen to make informed judgments about whether the potential benefits of NAFTA are worth the risks involved. In such a situation, political professionals believe, the question becomes: Who do you believe?
Thus, the White House has enlisted not only all the living former presidents and a whole array of big-name supporters from business -- the most prominent being Lee Iacocca, the former chairman of Chrysler and a man with high credibility earned from his years as a familiar and avuncular figure in the auto company's television commercials.
But the key is always the man in the Oval Office. So the first question is whether he can get the nation's attention when there are distractions in Somalia and Haiti. And the second and most critical question is whether Clinton will be believed when he makes his case for NAFTA.
The conventional wisdom now is that if a vote were held today, NAFTA would fail. But veterans of such situations also know that when the moment arrives, the question is likely to be a close one and, in that case, there will be a predilection among some House Democrats to go along with their president rather than embarrass him -- and others who simply can be pressured.