Win or lose the NAFTA vote, President Clinton's gutsy stand on behalf of free trade and better relations with Mexico and Latin America constitutes his finest hour since taking office.
His high-stakes gamble in sending Vice President Al Gore into a debate tonight with demagogic Ross Perot and his outspoken attack on the "rough-shod, muscle-bound" anti-NAFTA tactics of Big Labor may or may not provide the push needed for a victory next week in the House of Representatives. But this much is sure: passivity by the president would surely doom the agreement, undercut Mr. Clinton's prestige at home and abroad and send the signal that the United States is indeed turning inward and protectionist.
While the political chatterbox has it that Mr. Perot and his one-liners will make mincemeat of our very serious vice president, we hold to the hope that low expectations will prove to be Mr. Gore's trump card. He is well-versed on the issue, knows Washington a lot better than his adversary and is probably more widely respected than either Mr. Clinton or Mr. Perot.
The downside of the debate decision is that it magnified Mr. Perot just as the air was going out of his balloon. His distortion-filled book attacking the North American Free Trade Agreement had drawn the catcalls it deserved and he was becoming a peripheral character. Senate Republican leader Robert Dole's misgivings about giving Mr. Perot equal billing with the vice president might reach beyond the fate of NAFTA, a treaty he supports. If the Perot phenomenon continues, the Texas billionaire would pose more of a threat to the GOP establishment than to the Democrats, either as a contender for president or as an independent producing a three-way vote that could help Mr. Clinton's re-election campaign in 1996.
As for Mr. Clinton's attack on the AFL-CIO, this was well-deserved. Big Labor or its surrogates have been putting heat on Democratic incumbents in the House, threatening them with a cut-off of funds and opposition in next year's primary elections if they vote for NAFTA. While the AFL-CIO snapped back that the president was taking a "cheap shot," its tactics in the NAFTA debate have gone far beyond an academic discussion of the issues.
In taking on organized labor and its supporters in the House, President Clinton for the first time has established himself as the "new Democrat" he claims to be -- a politician eager to appeal to the middle class even at the cost of angering traditional Democratic constituencies. NAFTA will create more and better jobs than it loses, strengthen North America in its competition with Europe and Asia and improve the environment along the U.S.-Mexican border.
It is not too late to pull NAFTA out of the fire. We continue to hope Maryland's two Democratic fence-sitters, Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Steny H. Hoyer, will in the end do what's right for the country by voting for this agreement. Every vote counts.