In the Hot Seat on Trade

January 08, 1993

President-elect Clinton's selection of his campaign manager,

Mickey Kantor, for the hot-seat job of U.S. trade representative reflects the internal infighting of a divided party and Cabinet. Mr. Kantor is a respected lawyer-negotiator, certainly a solid qualification for a job that demands multi-dimensional bargaining with domestic interest groups and foreign powers. But what secured him the Cabinet-level post was his utter lack of background on trade issues. He will start with a clean slate, no ideological baggage and his close friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Oddly enough, this is a fairly typical resume for a chief trade representative. Robert Strauss, Clayton Yeutter and Carla Hills, predecessors all, had to pick up their expertise on the job while relying on career bureaucrats for technical advice. That will be Mr. Kantor's fate, too, but in his case he'll have to deal with two explosive issues that will not wait: the pending North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada and the long-stalled global reforms proposed under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

Mr. Clinton campaigned for the presidency as a free trader who nevertheless was sensitive to protectionist concerns within the Democratic Party coalition. Breaking with House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt's demands for renegotiation of NAFTA, he endorsed the pact as written while advocating ancillary environmental and worker-training agreements. These Mr. Kantor will have to negotiate with Congress and Mexico in steering implementing legislation through the maze on Capitol Hill. It could be an intense early test for the administration; the outcome is far from assured.

In addition, GATT is at an especially difficult juncture, due to a bitter struggle between the United States and France over lavish European Community export subsidies. The present impasse can hardly continue indefinitely. In the absence of a new GATT pact bringing agriculture, service industries and intellectual property under international trading rules now limited to manufactures, the world could lapse into bilateral and regional trade wars that would devastate the global economy.

So the stakes are big for Mr. Kantor. But the circumstances are not auspicious within a Democratic Party where protectionists tangle with free traders. Various factions fought feverishly to block one another's candidates, a situation that allowed Mr. Clinton "to find something for Mickey." All this will serve as background as NAFTA is discussed at today's meeting in Austin between Mr. Clinton and Mexico's President Carlos Salinas.

The Clinton Cabinet is such a mixed lot on trade issues that key political decisions will have to be made by the president himself, which may be just as well. He can count on support from Lloyd Bentsen as secretary of the Treasury and Robert Rubin as head of the National Economic Council. But Mr. Kantor's role could be decisive, and Mr. Kantor is a question mark on trade.

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