Clinton: the Trade President?

April 18, 1993

President Clinton's decision to seek legislation that will enable him to push for worldwide trade reform before the end of the year raises questions about his political acumen in dealing with Congress. After going into battle with Republicans over his $16.3 billion jobs-stimulus plan, the president will soon be needing GOP votes -- plenty of them -- to overcome strong protectionist sentiment in Democratic ranks. This being the case, you have to wonder if White House strategists have yet learned to look beyond one issue at a time.

The trade agenda is jelling even as the stimulus fight awaits resolution after the congressional spring break. In May, Mr. Clinton is likely to seek "fast-track" authority to negotiate a new global General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that Congress will have to accept or reject -- without change. Then, in mid-summer, he faces a much tougher struggle -- one in which he could lose half the Democratic votes on Capitol Hill -- over a North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. A year from now, at the latest, he will be submitting a GATT pact to Congress -- provided one is at last completed by mid-December and, more to the point, provided he prevails on NAFTA with Republican help. Foreign governments would be loath to negotiate a global trade agreement with a U.S. administration that had failed to gain congressional approval of a regional trading bloc. So the fate of NAFTA is key.

No items on the Clinton agenda so combine and put at risk his twin goals of a jobs-creating recovery at home and economic growth worldwide. Four times President Bush went to Group of Seven summits where he and other leaders of the industrial democracies put their personal prestige on the line for global trade reform. And four times, Mr. Clinton's predecessor failed. Now the new president has vowed he will renew the Bush pledge and has pronounced himself "frankly optimistic" that the seven-year stalemate in GATT will soon end.

In taking this stance, Mr. Clinton is confronting protectionist constituency groups in his party -- especially organized labor and the environmental lobby. The administration has already irritated these two groups by making it clear any side agreements to the treaty will not include trilateral enforcement provisions that would infringe the sovereignty of all three countries. In the coming summer showdown, support from Republicans loyal to the free-trade positions of the Reagan-Bush era will be essential to -- NAFTA's passage.

We commend Mr. Clinton for defying protectionists in his own party by pushing for trade reforms crucial to world stability and well-being. Implicit in this position is a willingness to sacrifice real low-tech jobs for potential high-tech jobs, a stance difficult for a Democratic president. But to bring this courageous decision to fruition, he should discard the party-line tone taken over the stimulus package and begin to build the bipartisan coalition he will need to achieve his trade objectives.

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