WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's decision to indulge in a little labor-bashing on "Meet the Press" is the kind of baffling politics that is likely to make it more rather than less difficult to win approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
There is no question that many voters, particularly in the South and Far West, are put off by organized labor's influence in American politics. The Republicans have demonstrated repeatedly in recent years that their charge of "special interest" can have real sting when applied to unions.
But Bill Clinton is hardly the right man to exploit whatever anti-union feeling is abroad in the land. And, even if that were not the case, NAFTA is hardly the issue. It will be decided not by national opinion polls on the popularity of the AFL-CIO but instead by the judgments of several dozen Democrats in the House of Representatives who still claim to be undecided on the issue but are not likely to be pleased at being pictured as yielding to union pressures.
Clinton's advisers in the White House have understood all along that there was never any realistic chance of labor's changing its position that the treaty would be a threat to the jobs of working Americans. So the wise course clearly was to minimize the differences in recognition of the fact union help will be needed soon on other matters -- health-care reform, most obviously -- on which there is no such disagreement.
The White House advisers and pro-NAFTA Democrats in Congress also have recognized that not everyone in the labor movement feels strongly about its opposition to the agreement. Unions that represent public employees and teachers have no direct stake in the treaty, so they might have been expected to go through the motions on NAFTA.
That was the case until, of course, the president polarized the issue with his statement that "at least for the undecided Democrats [in the House], our big problem is the raw muscle -- the sort of naked pressure -- that the labor forces have put on." If there is a choice between a president and union colleagues, it is not hard to imagine how that would turn out.
The complaint about what Clinton called labor's "roughshod, muscle-bound tactics" was particularly striking. Organized labor brings two assets to American politics -- money and manpower to help win elections. Last year the money and manpower helped Bill Clinton win the presidency; next year the same weapons will be employed for Democratic candidates in campaigns for governor, the Senate and the House. And this year union money and manpower will be used to help rally support for health-care reform.
So the president's thrust might be a crowd-pleaser among Republicans and conservative Democrats -- including many of those prominent in the Democratic Leadership Council -- who want to see a president free of the bonds of traditional liberalism. And it may seem politically safe to anyone who knows that unions now represent only about 15 percent of the work force.
But politicians in both parties understand that the unions are a vital element of the Democratic coalition in many major states -- New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, for example -- where labor manpower can make the difference in turning out the vote for Democratic candidates. And the professionals also understand that it is union money that supports much of the party apparatus both in these states and at the national level. So it may be smart politics to bash unions in Arkansas, but hardly for a Democratic president who has supped at labor's table at the national level.
The president professed to be surprised when, during a commercial break shortly after making the comments on a live broadcast of "Meet the Press," he was shown wire service reports covering his attack on labor. When the cameras came back on, Clinton tried to soften his criticism, and the next day the White House was using all hands to undo the damage.
But simply the fact that Clinton made such an obvious gaffe raises questions about, first, his political smarts and, second, how much pressure he is feeling on the NAFTA issue in particular. Since Bill Clinton has never been accused of being politically dense, the only inference can be that the campaign for NAFTA is still decidedly uphill.