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Mexico loan legislation finds a weakened Clinton


WASHINGTON -- On the face of it, President Clinton should be in a strong position to make his case for the $40 billion loan guarantee for Mexico.

He was, after all, highly successful in building a bipartisan majority for both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) last year.

But that was then and this is now. The problem the president faces in dealing with the financial crisis in Mexico speaks volumes about how much credibility he lost when his party went down to a crushing defeat Nov. 8 and he was assigned so much of the blame.

Moreover, Clinton is not only in a weakened position but one that will be further undermined if he fails to win approval from Congress for the so-called bailout legislation. This is a city in which political bleeding attracts the sharks instantly.

There is, of course, no great mystery in the resistance to the loan guarantee. As Clinton put it to the National Governors' Association, "I realize it is not politically popular back home."

Too many voters, the White House fully understands, see the proposal not as a loan guarantee but instead as a prospective cash outlay not entirely dissimilar to the foreign aid programs they detest so much.

And those with a more sophisticated grasp of the situation see the initiative as less an attempt to protect American jobs dependent on trade with Mexico than a plan to save the skins of Wall Street investors who plunged on the expectation of great benefits from NAFTA.

In fact, it is probably most accurate to say that both jobs and investments are at stake in helping Mexico through its financial crisis.

The president and his surrogates are conducting a full-court press for the legislation, making the generally valid arguments that there is a national interest for the United States in saving the economy of Mexico, now our third-largest trading partner.

The argument is roughly the same as the case made for NAFTA and GATT in the face of opposition from an odd-couple coalition of right-wing extremists and labor unions.

Those same forces are allied once again on the loan guarantee, but this time the resistance is much broader, particularly within Clinton's own Democratic Party. And it is the hardening of that opposition in particular that defines the president's political weakness.

Given the poll numbers and the Nov. 8 election results, Clinton is in no position to either promise political help or threaten political reprisal against Democrats dragging their feet. And that has been apparent in the resistance now from prominent party figures who went along with Clinton on the earlier tests.

Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, for example, said on "Meet the Press" Sunday that "there has to be a better case made on the substance" if Clinton is to win congressional approval.

The seriousness of the threat to the Clinton plan is clear, too, in the Republican reaction.

Originally both House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole backed the president, but both have danced away from a full-scale commitment to press for the legislation, in large measure because of the widening Republican opposition.

This is all pretty rudimentary politics. The critical factor now is that the president doesn't have -- or at least has not demonstrated -- the clout with the electorate to build a popular majority for a proposal that may be somewhat risky but still is probably important, if not essential, to the health of the domestic economy.

Mr. Clinton is doing all the things a president does in a situation like this. He is pressing the issue in one public forum after another. He has sent his Cabinet advisers to one congressional hearing after another to make the case before the television cameras. He once again has enlisted the endorsement of former presidents and secretaries of state of both parties that he employed during the earlier trade pact battles.

In the end, it remains likely that he will emerge with some form of help for Mexico, although the provisions on collateral and payment schedules could be quite different from those in his original plan. But this success is by no means assured.

And the only inference that can be drawn from the nature and breadth of the resistance is that Bill Clinton is -- for the moment, at least -- a president naked to his enemies.

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