Daley knows the ropes, but NAFTA tests Clinton



WASHINGTON -- When William Daley, the ring-wise Chicago lawyer, was named by President Clinton to lead the campaign to confirm the North American Free Trade Agreement, he said the kind of thing that a ring-wise Chicago lawyer might say in those circumstances. "With your leadership," he said, turning to the president, "we will be successful."

In this case, however, this was more than the usual boilerplate. Once again, Clinton's ability to lead his own party is being put to the test. And once again, the potential political ramifications go beyond the issue at hand.

The NAFTA issue is quite different from any the president has confronted in his seven months of learning everything the hard way in Washington. The treaty was a product of his Republican predecessor, George Bush, and has divided the Democratic Party into relatively well-defined camps. And there is the added fillip, if it were needed, of Ross Perot making his own special brand of mischief.

The early reckoning holds that there is more than adequate backing for NAFTA in the Senate but that it's a close call in the House. By some counts, the treaty should be able to carry as many as 120 House Republicans, meaning that Clinton would need about 100 Democrats. And there are more than 50 Democrats in states abutting Mexico in which the political, civic and business leaderships are solidly united behind the treaty.

So the bottom line is that Clinton needs to enlist another 50 to 60 Democrats, which is where Bill Daley comes in. And as Daley observed when he was introduced at the White House, this is "obviously quite a challenge."

The most serious obstacle is the adamant opposition of organized labor, which in turn has led to opposition from House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, House Majority Whip David E. Bonior and the Congressional Black Caucus, among others.

At one point, there was some faint hope that the side agreements on labor standards and the environment might make the treaty more palatable to those worried about American jobs, but this may always have been a pipe dream. Gephardt himself has believed all along that the kind of side agreements that would buy labor would be so stringent they would cost votes from Republicans and make the equation for passage different but essentially no more promising.

Then there is the additional problem of Ross Perot telling everyone that the "giant sucking sound" they hear is American jobs being drawn south of the border. Perot is now coming forward with still another book written with economist Pat Choate and entitled, "Save Your Jobs, Save Our Country. Why NAFTA Must Be Stopped Now."

The real problem, however, is the economic context of the treaty. The same fear of economic competition that is driving the strong backlash against illegal immigration into the United States is the underlying force in the opposition to NAFTA. This is not a good time to tell American workers to look down the road a few years to the promise of this huge new market in Mexico.

There has been a growing suspicion in Washington over the last few months that, despite his support for NAFTA during the campaign, Clinton might decide it would be wiser to let the issue slide for a year or two rather than risk a defeat when he must deal with the health care reform question as well.

But Mickey Kantor, the longtime Clinton friend serving as the special trade representative, has now come forward with side agreements, although the precise details have yet to be unveiled. That action, coupled with the appointment of Daley, means there is no turning back even if Clinton were so inclined.

Thus, once again, the new president is being asked to demonstrate that he has the leadership skills to do his job -- in this case, by persuading a few dozen congressmen of his own party that NAFTA is a good idea.

Once again, the political stakes are high.

If Clinton succeeds in passing NAFTA, he may pass some threshold of perception as an effective leader in the White House that has been beyond him up to this point. That, in turn, might make him more persuasive with the public and Congress on the more complex issue of health care reform.

If he fails to win on NAFTA because his own party won't follow him, the message will be quite the opposite -- that he is a president who can be defied at will.

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