Clinton's Protectionist Problem

September 11, 1992

House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt's denunciation of

the pending free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada might provide political cover for Bill Clinton as candidate but could cause trouble a-plenty for Bill Clinton as president.

Mr. Clinton says he supports the 2,000-page treaty "in concept," a position that puts him at odds with organized labor and other protectionist elements in his Democratic Party. But to avoid offending such allies he refuses to give the pact his approval until he studies its text and ponders congressional hearings now in progress.

This opens the Democratic candidate to Republican taunts that once again he is trying to have it both ways. We doubt Mr. Clinton will lose much sleep on this account. Polls indicate that even in Texas and California, states where President Bush figured to get an important boost from the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the pact is proving to be a yawner. Where it generates heat, of the negative kind, is in the industrial Midwest -- a decisive political battleground.

Congressman Gephardt, who ran for president as a Japan-bashing protectionist four years ago, knew what he was doing when he went before a labor conference this week to demand that the treaty be renegotiated. To outright protectionists, this was code for trying to kill the pact. Any renegotiation would cause an uproar in Mexico and make Canada suspicious that the Americans were trying to up the ante after 14 months of tough negotiations. It also would run congressional action past the May 31, 1993, expiration date for an up-or-down vote on the treaty without amendment.

Mr. Gephardt told reporters later that a Democratic Congress could extend this deadline to accommodate a Democratic president. He also said changes could still be made in the pact through legislation rather than renegotiation. All of which should make Governor Clinton uncomfortable. NAFTA promises to be one of his first major foreign policy challenges if he wins the presidency. The Democratic unity now on view for the election could shatter in a twinkling on the trade issue.

During this year's primaries, Sen. Tom Harkin was the darling of organized labor, not least because he opposed the Mexico treaty outright. Mr. Clinton positioned himself more as a free trader, which is one reason why his relationship with the AFL-CIO is delicate. To obscure this fault line, it makes political sense for Democrats to challenge the treaty's impact on the environment and jobs.

In the meantime, President Bush is rightly seizing the high ground in describing NAFTA as a crucial element in making the U.S. an "export superpower" in a world where he hopes barriers between nations will come down, not go up. It is a shaky dream as recession-hit governments in all the major industrial democracies hunker down. Whoever takes the presidency next January must surely know that if NAFTA fails the omens will not be favorable for a world free of trade wars.

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