"Tonight is the time for courage," House Speaker Tom Foley shouted early this month as he rallied his fellow Democrats to support President Clinton's budget plan in the face of rock-solid Republican opposition. With support from Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, he disciplined his party.
The speaker, alas, is whispering, not shouting, these days as the North American Free Trade Agreement finds the same Mr. Gephardt leading the naysayers against Mr. Clinton's most important trade initiative. The most the speaker had to say on behalf of NAFTA over the weekend was that he was "tending" to support it.
That's courage? Unless the Democrats get behind this highly important trade pact, it will die (just as Budget Director Leon Panetta once warned.) Unlike the budget fight, this is not a partisan battle between Democrats and Republicans. It is a fight within the Democratic Party as union labor and environmentalists mock the free trade principles of a long line of Democratic presidents.
Early nose-counts indicate that as many as 120 to 130 Republicans, three-quarters of the GOP caucus, will vote for a treaty originally negotiated and signed by President George Bush. That means Foley and Co. have to come up with about 90 votes or a meager one-third of the Democratic caucus to secure House passage. "The Democratic leadership and membership are badly divided," the speaker concedes. "That's the reality." Is it also leadership?
When side agreements negotiated by the Clinton administration on labor and environment standards were first announced, Mr. Foley's No. 2, Mr. Gephardt, said they "are not supportable." But Mr. Gephardt has not given up his ambitions for the presidency, an office that doesn't mesh well with his own protectionist instincts. And so he may merely be trying to raise the ante before swinging around. He complained to the Journal of Commerce that the Clinton side agreements do not give tri-national commissions authority -- get this -- to enforce collective bargaining and right-to-strike laws in Mexico. Would U.S. right-to-work states want an international tribunal to find them in non-compliance? Would Americans find resulting fines and trade sanctions imposed under NAFTA a violation of U.S. sovereignty?
Democratic mavens are rightly worried about divisions in their party, not only on trade but on health care and welfare reform at the same time Republicans have a chance to erase the negative image they projected during the budget debate.
Mr. Gephardt knows all this. Perhaps in the end, he will find it politically prudent to keep his party from going over the protectionist cliff against NAFTA. After all, he still wants to be president. As for Mr. Foley, he risks becoming an irrelevance if he can do no better than wring his hands over Democratic defections and present himself as merely "tending" to back the president on NAFTA.