Perot book on trade pact provokes rapid response Administration rebuts on 193 points

September 03, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Political maverick Ross Perot did it again yesterday. He got so far under the administration's skin that he produced the loudest yelp yet of political exasperation from this capital's corridors of power.

This time it was over the North American Free Trade Agreement and Mr. Perot's contention that it is a bad treaty -- bad for America, bad for its workers, bad for its farmers, bad for its environment and bad for its economy.

The Clinton administration, convinced that it is good in all the above respects, took the extraordinary step yesterday of issuing a formal 74-page rebuttal of what it deemed to be 193 misconceptions, inaccuracies, errors and misleading statements published in a 142-page book on the treaty by Mr. Perot.

The book, written with co-author Pat Choate, a political economist, is called "Save Your Job, Save Our Country: Why NAFTA Must Be Stopped -- Now!"

Almost apoplectic at the appearance of the book in stores this week, the Clinton administration rebutted each of the challenged items with its own counter-assertion.

Some examples:

Perot: "NAFTA will accelerate the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States."

Clinton: "False. U.S. exports of manufactures to Mexico have grown rapidly since Mexico lowered its trade barriers after 1986, and are projected to grow more under NAFTA. This has actually added more than 400,000 new jobs to the American economy."

Perot: "The NAFTA deal on agricultural trade is just as bad."

Clinton: "U.S. agriculture and the American farmer are big winners under the NAFTA. Conservative estimates show an expected increase of $2 billion to $2.5 billion in U.S. agriculture exports annually by the end of the transition period because of the NAFTA."

Thea Lea, a trade analyst with the Economic Policy Institute, which opposes the treaty, said of the administration's response: "It's ridiculous. A lot of it is just recycling the same arguments."

The formal rebuttal was presented by U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, flanked by his deputy, Rufus Yerxa, and the new White House NAFTA "czar," William M. Daley, son of Chicago's late legendary political boss.

Mr. Kantor, who chaired the Clinton presidential campaign, told reporters: "One thing I learned, starting August 1991 and concluding early November 1992, is no charge should be left unrebutted."

Throughout the campaign, the Clinton team ran a so-called "war room," from which any and every charge issued by opponents -- and particularly Ross Perot -- was instantly answered. It was judged an effective technique in helping Mr. Clinton win the election.

Asked why he felt it necessary for the administration to go to such lengths to answer a privately published book, Mr. Kantor said: "The fact is this is part of the public record. This is a serious issue. It ought to be treated seriously."

Asked who the administration could produce to combat Mr. Perot's telegenic populist appeal, he replied tartly: "Frankly, this should not be a sound bite or telegenic debate. Certainly if it were, I would not be the one sitting up here."

Mr. Kantor said he would be happy to discuss the issue with Mr. Perot any time. The two are due to appear on CNN's "Larry King Live" on consecutive evenings next week -- slated, but not confirmed, for Tuesday and Wednesday. No joint appearances have yet been scheduled.

Mr. Kantor chided Mr. Perot for basing his indictment of NAFTA on three major "misconceptions": that the status quo in relations with Mexico is better than the proposed changes under the agreement, that protectionism is preferable to free trade and that U.S. workers cannot compete with Mexicans.

"There have been 24 studies [of NAFTA], and not one has ever shown a net job loss," Mr. Kantor said.

"We are making the rules fair. They are not fair right now to American workers. That is why we have lost jobs to Mexico

during the last 28 years."

He estimated that the current growth rate in U.S. exports to Mexico over the next five years would create 200,000 jobs.

"If that doesn't grab anyone, they are not interested in creating jobs in this country," he said. "Let me tell you, this administration is going to stand up for the American worker."

The administration's unusual move reflected the considerable impact Mr. Perot is having on the NAFTA debate, which is shaping up as a political donnybrook for the administration, with a majority of Democrats opposed to or leaning against the treaty.

The agreement is also opposed by two other populist politicians -- the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, a Democrat, and Patrick J. Buchanan, a Republican -- and by a broad coalition of organized labor, environmental, farm and consumer groups.

Its supporters outside the administration include the Republican Party and business groups. Its fate is still in the balance.

As a powerful influence over millions of voters, Mr. Perot can exert tremendous pressure on members of Congress, particularly unnerving freshmen members worried about re-election next year. Significantly, his anti-NAFTA book lists the phone and fax numbers of every member of the House and Senate.

The salvo from the administration marked the opening of its lobbying effort to win approval of NAFTA, which would create the world's largest free trading zone of the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Later this month, Mr. Kantor and other administration officials will start testifying at House and Senate hearings.

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