WASHINGTON -- President Clinton surrounded himself yesterday with Big Names in an extraordinary White House rally in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement that had more of the flavor of a religious revival than an economic debate.
Paul Samuelson, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, spoke of "the age of miracles" not being over; the president appeared to be saying a prayer for members of Congress; and former President Jimmy Carter called on everyone in the room to make 12 proselytizing calls to win converts to the NAFTA faith.
With the clocking ticking toward a vote in the House two weeks from today on the proposed treaty, Mr. Clinton assembled a group of respected Americans from across the political spectrum, all of whom warned of dire consequences if Congress rejects the agreement to dismantle trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada.
White House strategists are working on two tracks right now in the hard-fought effort to garner votes. On the one hand, the president and his aides are calling fence-sitting members, and either leaning on them or offering them various goodies in what the press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, candidly termed "horse-trading."
The other track, the one yesterday's East Room rally was riding on, involves patriotic appeals from all sides of the political spectrum.
"Mr. President, when Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson march down the sawdust trail together," said the liberal Mr. Samuelson of his conservative rival, "the cause must be indeed a powerful one for the American people."
Administration officials and NAFTA's allies in Congress were coldly realistic about the fact that they are still short of votes. Democratic Representatives Robert Matsui of California and Bill Richardson of New Mexico said yesterday they have 73 votes of the 100 Democrats needed to pass the measure.
Mr. Richardson stressed that there still was work to do among Republicans, too, and said one reason for the event was to show Republicans that the president, who is considering a nationally televised appearance with Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, is pressing the fight hard.
For the first time yesterday, however, White House officials actually appeared to believe their own optimistic pronouncements.
"Although we still have a lot of work to do," agreed Vice President Al Gore, "the momentum is decidedly in our favor."
But in an example of how thorny trade negotiations can be, the Mexicans have initially rejected an effort by the Clinton administration to arrange a "sugar fix" to sweeten the pact for legislators from cane- and beet-producing states.
As many as 12 House votes are at stake, making a deal to protect the $20 billion U.S. sugar industry and its 360,000 workers crucial to passage of the controversial trade pact.
"You do these all these deals you can," said Mr. Richardson. "But at this point, [the president] needs to appeal to the national interest and hope these guys do the right thing."
The rally at the White House was designed to do just that.
Carla A. Hills, who helped negotiate the treaty as President George Bush's top trade official, proclaimed the impending vote "a defining moment for our nation."
"About once in a generation, this country has an opportunity in foreign policy to do something defining, something that establishes the structure for decades to come," said former GOP Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. "If NAFTA fails, the relationship with Mexico will be damaged for the foreseeable future, but even more than that, the opportunity for the United States to play its historic role at standing for freedom and developing of mankind by setting a pattern of new international structures will have been dissipated."
The loudest applause came for James A. Baker III, who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations as White House chief of staff, secretary of the treasury and secretary of state. He took aim -- though not by name -- at NAFTA's prominent opponents, including such disparate voices as Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, Patrick Buchanan and Mr. Baker's fellow Texan, Ross Perot.
"With the end of the Cold War, the voices of isolationism and protectionism are heard again, and they're heard very loudly," Mr. Baker said. "They stretch across the political spectrum from right to left. Stripped of fatuous statistics and inflammatory rhetoric, the argument against NAFTA is a very simple one. It's an argument based on fear, fear that America lacks the confidence to lead."
Invoking the anti-NAFTA ad campaign, Mr. Baker added: "You know, 'Come Home America' is a very appealing slogan, but it is a true siren's song. I think NAFTA critics miss a fundamental truth, and it's a truth that is understood by everyone in this room today and a truth that's been understood by every American president since Franklin Roosevelt: You see, America already is at home, and that home is called the world."
Sticking to this theme, Mr. Clinton, who spoke last, said the NAFTA vote was a chance for Congress to employ "all the lessons we have learned in the 20th century."
Embracing protectionism after World War I helped cause the Great Depression, and embarking on the expensive Marshall Plan saved Europe -- a Europe that became an eager market for U.S. goods, the president said.
"No one attacking NAFTA has yet made a single solitary argument to refute this essential point: There is no evidence that any wealthy country . . . can create new jobs and higher incomes without more global growth fueled by trade," Mr. Clinton said. "If you strip away all of the other arguments, no one has offered a single solitary shred of evidence to refute that central point."