Politics and Trade

October 21, 1992

Ross Perot's blistering assault on the North American Free Trade Agreement, a Bush administration icon, diminishes chances for early ratification in a Clinton administration. While Gov. Bill Clinton has agreed the pact should not be subjected to renegotiation that would kill it, thus differing with organized labor and Gephardt protectionists in Congress, he may have enough reservations to put it on hold rather than complicate the domestic economy package he promises in his first 100 days.

Trade policies and raw politics are inseparable, as the current election campaign illustrates so well. President Bush pushed NAFTA to the initialing stage just before the Republican National Convention in Houston to boost his prospects in Texas, where the treaty is popular. But now a member of a presidential advisory committee, TRW chairman Joseph Gorman, complains that Mr. Bush rushed into the deal with Mexico and Canada against his advice. "He pushed for it. . . before it was ready," Mr. Gorman told the Journal of Commerce.

Mr. Gorman said he does not see "the heavy hand of protectionism in what [Governor Clinton] says, but my concern is that he may sense there is a mandate for more protectionism." Add that statement to Mr. Clinton's assertion in Monday's presidential debate that he has been endorsed by Clyde Prestowitz, an advocate of get-tough measures against Japan, and the trade policies of a Clinton administration look dicey. Protectionist sentiment is strong among Rust Belt politicians, including members of the Maryland delegation in Congress.

Clinton advisers reportedly are putting out the word that they do not want a new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to make its way out of the negotiating maw until their candidate can put his fingerprints on it. This would have zero-to-negative persuasive value with the Bush administration but it might encourage foreign countries to go slow. The United States has made some concessions on European Community farm subsidies that could produce an agreement before the election, thus giving Mr. Bush an important new trophy.

Unlike NAFTA, which now can be brought up any time in Congress for an up or down vote without amendment, time is pressing on GATT. Unless the executive branch, whoever runs it, has a completed pact to present next spring, GATT could lose the fast-track authority that is essential to congressional passage. Any trade pact open to amendment would be nibbled to death by special interests.

If President Bush is a self-proclaimed free trader and Ross Perot an inveterate protectionist, what about Governor Clinton? As on so many issues, his penchant for ambiguity as a means to achieve consensus seems to be his operative approach.

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