Without coattails, it's hard for Clinton to pass NAFTA ON THE POLITICAL SCENE


WASHINGTON -- The conventional wisdom here this weekend is that the North American Free Trade Agreement either will pass the House next Wednesday by the narrowest of margins -- one or two votes -- or be buried by a convincing majority.

That is always the conventional wisdom in cases like this in which the prestige of the president is involved, and it makes some sense.

The theory is that if President Clinton can come within a handful of votes -- let's say six or eight -- there will be enough Democrats who won't want to take the responsibility for embarrassing their first president in 12 years.

Some White House sources also say, as they always do in such situations, that the president has a hidden reserve of a couple of House Democrats who are opposed to NAFTA but don't want their votes to be the ones to sink the president.

Going into the final five days of cajoling, persuading, deal-making, horse-trading and threatening on both sides, neither can make a convincing case that the contest is over.

There are simply too many variables in this political equation.

First, how many Democrats may be susceptible to the White House argument that the stakes for President Clinton are too high for them to enjoy the luxury of simply "voting their districts"?

Clinton has not been around long enough to have built a reservoir of personal loyalty among other Democrats upon which he can draw in a political crisis like this one.

More to the point, the Democratic losses in all the high-profile elections in the last year suggest the president has no coattails.

That same inference can be drawn from his middling-at-best approval ratings in opinion polls.

So if Clinton is going to win over many of these recalcitrant Democrats, it will be on the basis of quid pro quo deals for sewer projects back home rather than any deep personal attachment to the president.

Second, what reassurance can the White House offer to House Democrats spooked by the hard-line opposition of organized labor and the union threats to withhold campaign contributions in the elections next year?

Some Democrats obviously might be brought along if Clinton promised to appear at a fund-raiser for them to compensate for that union money. But the president cannot agree to a half-dozen such appearances without being forced to do 25 or 30, which is logistically and politically impossible.

Third, how much can the House Republicans be trusted?

The White House is operating on the assumption that if it can line up 98 to 100 Democrats, the Republicans will provide the 118 to 120 votes needed to bring the total to 218.

But some Democrats are suspicious of Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, who has been leading the charge for NAFTA within his party.

Isn't it possible, they wonder privately, that Gingrich might be just as happy to deliver a Republican margin impressive enough to reinforce the party's identification with free trade while watching Clinton and the Democrats fall short and suffer the humiliation?

Such a scenario may sound too convoluted to be realistic, even in this city.

But the significant point is that the White House has devoted virtually all its attention to Democrats and simply relied on the Republicans to deliver. And to that extent, Clinton could be at Gingrich's mercy, which may not be the best place to be.

Finally, what are the House Democrats hearing back home this weekend?

The opinion polls continue to show the voters close to evenly divided on NAFTA, although there has been some movement toward support for the treaty since the debate between Vice President Al Gore and Ross Perot.

So the response of voters and community and business leaders can be critical in some close cases, which is why Clinton and Gore and everyone in the administration with the slightest possible influence is being brought into play this weekend.

The republic is not going to collapse if Bill Clinton loses the NAFTA vote on Wednesday.

But the focus on the issue has become so intense that the importance of the outcome to the president has been magnified beyond recognition -- whether it proves to be a narrow victory or a resounding defeat.

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