WASHINGTON -- In the wake of President Clinton's resounding victory in the House on the North American Free Trade Agreement, it's instructive to recall that only recently he was being criticized, even ridiculed, as a political amateur in over his head in the high-stakes competition of the nation's capital.
All the talk was of his bumbling start -- gays in the military, Cabinet appointments gone awry, indecisiveness toward Bosnia and Haiti. Even in squeaking his deficit-reduction package through Congress, he was taken to task by many for having failed to generate the slightest bipartisan support on the measure.
Now that he has constructed a remarkable come-from-behind breakthrough on NAFTA, the losers -- organized labor and many liberals in his own Democratic Party -- are whining in effect that he has learned to play the game of Washington all too well. His horse-trading for votes, the essence of professional politics-playing that these same critics earlier complained he lacked, demonstrated that Clinton is an attentive student.
In mobilizing the resources at his command -- the strongest voices in his administration and in the national community at large -- Clinton successfully pitted the presidency and the nation's place in the world of global trade against an opposition that permitted itself to be seen as a collection of naysayers. He trumped labor's central argument that NAFTA would cost Americans their jobs, first by making the case that NAFTA was a surmounting issue of the national interest and then by methodically easing the concerns of specific groups with the kind of dealing that would have made Democratic predecessor Lyndon Johnson proud.
At the same time, Clinton emphatically reinforced the image for which he strived so diligently in last year's presidential campaign -- as a "different kind of Democrat" not tied irreparably to labor and past liberal policies as were party nominees Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.
Indeed, his willingness to take on labor was reminiscent of his 1992 campaign strategy of periodically "going against the grain" to prove his independence, the best example of which was his pointed criticism of rap artist Sister Souljah in the presence of Jesse Jackson. It conveyed that Clinton was not going to pay court to Jackson as Mondale and Dukakis had been accused of doing.
Just as Jackson warned then that Clinton was risking losing support he needed, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland is saying now that while organized labor will continue to back him on his top priority, health care reform, the outcome of the NAFTA debate is likely to hurt the prospects of its enactment, and that House members who voted for NAFTA will not be forgotten by labor voters when they come up for re-election.
Kirkland has warned that the coalition of "corporate interests, Wall Street types and big business" that Clinton put together for NAFTA won't be with him on health care. That's probably true, but Clinton will have the opportunity to construct a different coalition that will include big labor and other groups to replace these elements of the NAFTA coalition. Kirkland himself said that the approval of NAFTA will not cause any "irreparable damage" to organized labor cooperation on objectives it shares with Clinton.
As Clinton moves past the NAFTA fight to such other priorities as health care reform, he will be obliged to piece together majorities where he can find them.
There is, however, no major remaining issue on his agenda likely to split the old Democratic coalition the way NAFTA did. Nor is jTC there anything on that agenda to which Republicans are likely to flock as they did on the NAFTA vote for an initiative launched by two previous Republican presidents.
The greater challenge ahead for Clinton will not be so much bringing disaffected Democrats back to the fold as it will be picking off enough Republicans to avoid cliffhangers like the budget votes.
And with Republicans aware that voters want some kind of health care reform, the climate seems favorable to Clinton -- if he can continue to demonstrate he has learned to play the congressional game of toughness combined with deal-making, in the LBJ manner.