This is House majority leader Richard Gephardt's chance to shed some of the protectionist image that undermined his presidential bid in 1988 and could thwart his future political ambitions. At the risk of surprising a lot of his colleagues and angering organized labor, he should swing his support behind the Bush administration's plea for fast-track authority to negotiate an unamendable trade agreement with Mexico.
Mr. Gephardt is a key figure in a Capitol Hill battle that must be decided by June 1. If he joins with such other leading Democrats as Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Rep. Dean Rostenkowski, the chairmen of committees dealing with trade, he could make congressional approval a sure thing.
Such a switch would save the Democratic Party from another show of isolationism, which is one of the factors in its consistent failure to win the White House. It also would position Mr. Gephardt for another bid for national office. He would emerge as more a statesman and less a protectionist.
By most indications, Mr. Gephardt rates as a foe of the Bush initiative to create a North American free trade area to compete with European and Asian trading blocs. He has echoed union complaints that a pact with Mexico would endanger U.S. jobs and wage levels. He has agreed with groups that charge pollution would increase.
Yet he is perched on the fence at this moment, and some of his associates await a Gephardt shock. Last weekend, the Missouri congressman visited Mexico for talks with President Carlos Salinas de Gortari -- hardly the action of a lawmaker who has made up his mind. Earlier, he sent President Bush a long, detailed letter listing his concerns about the implications of the Mexican trade pact and largely avoided confrontational language. When Mr. Bush responded with an "action plan" welcomed by Messrs. Bentsen and Rostenkowski, Mr. Gephardt labeled it "substantive" and promised to give it careful study. So far so good.
Pressure from Mr. Gephardt and his allies have goaded the administration into promising assistance for displaced U.S. workers, safeguards for health and safety regulations and an extended period going beyond a decade for lowering tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers. All these assurances can be incorporated in a non-binding congressional resolution if Congress accepts the "fast-track" approach to a Mexican trade pact subject only to an up-or-down vote in Congress without amendment. That would give both sides something, let negotiations proceed and confirm some promising readjustments on the part of Mr. Gephardt.