Sticking with tough fight appeals to Bill Daley


September 03, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Bill Daley does not act much like a czar.

He shows up early for lunch in a town where keeping people waiting is an art form. He brings no entourage with him and he has walked -- not limoed -- a half-dozen blocks in the wilting heat.

Yet he is a czar, the NAFTA czar, the man who chairs Bill Clinton's efforts to get the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress.

There are worse jobs.

Being in charge of the Mars probe, for instance.

NAFTA is unpopular with a number of interest groups, but none so much as organized labor.

NAFTA would remove most trade barriers between the United States, Mexico and Canada, and those opposed to it fear it will cause American jobs, especially union jobs, to head south of the border.

The Clinton administration, on the other hand, believes NAFTA will increase the number of jobs in America and make us more competitive throughout the world.

Besides, if we can't compete with Mexico, for cripe's sakes, who can we compete with?

Daley comes from a big labor city -- he is the youngest son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago and brother of Richard M. Daley, the current mayor -- and has excellent union ties: the Amalgamated Bank of Chicago, which he headed for three years, is the only unionized bank in the city and was founded by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.

So Daley was an ideal choice to persuade the Democrats in Congress that even though organized labor is against this treaty, it will be good for everyone in the long run.

And Daley has a whole 100 days or so to do it.

"I'm a temporary government employee, but they just sent over a stack of employment forms this thick," he said, spreading his thumb and index finger about three inches apart. "And I've got to give them a urine sample to prove I don't take drugs."

Though some of his friends think he must be on something to have accepted a job as thankless as this one.

"People came to me and said, 'Why do you need this grief? Why take on a fight this tough?' " Daley said. "But you don't back down because it's bad for you politically. The president is the leader of our party. He won and he won backing NAFTA. It's not like he pulled this out of a hat or double-crossed anybody. And if he walked away from NAFTA now, everybody would be jumping all over him for bagging it."

Sticking with a tough fight appeals to Daley. Perhaps it is the Chicago in him. And when Clinton called and asked him to take the job, that was Daley's first question.

"I'll do it if you're committed to it," Daley told the president. "I'll do it if you're going to stick it out."

Daley's role, aside from organizing the pro-NAFTA forces and going on the Sunday talk shows -- "I guess I've got to go on TV and get my head knocked off," he said -- is meeting with the Democrats in Congress and pointing out the advantages of backing their president and the disadvantages of seeing him fail.

Clinton needs 218 votes in the House for a majority and I asked Daley how many he could count on today.

"We've got about 40 solid Democrats and about 110 solid Republicans," Daley said. "Say about 150-170 solid for NAFTA. That means we need about 50 more."

And you can get 50 more?

"We're three and a half months out and the president just got engaged with it," Daley said. "Getting those votes is going to be a very retail, very one-on-one endeavor."

Clinton and Daley are getting little or no help from the Democratic leadership, however: The majority leader currently opposes NAFTA, the whip is leading the fight against it and the speaker is freeing everyone to vote their consciences.

So Daley is under no illusions as to how tough a fight this is going to be. But he believes that Clinton is totally committed to the battle.

"I think when the president says this is a major leg on his stool of economic recovery, that's pretty high stakes," Daley said.

But Daley also realizes how hard it is going to be to get Democrats to cast a vote for a treaty opposed by organized labor.

"It's an easy vote against," Daley admitted.

But you've got to win?

"Oh, yeah," he said firmly. "You can't pick a fight and lose."

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