Presidents for NAFTA

September 15, 1993

If a show of presidential passion can rescue the North American Free Trade Agreement from defeat in Congress, the White House provided it in quadruple measure yesterday. In an unusual tableau in the ceremonial East Room, Presidents Clinton, Bush, Carter and Ford said the pact would create jobs at home and foreign policy dividends in the hemisphere. They deplored the fears and the fear-mongers that have placed NAFTA in deep trouble.

Although the name of treaty foe Ross Perot went unmentioned, the Texas billionaire-politician was a specter throughout. "Unfortunately in our country now we have a demagogue who has unlimited financial resources and who is extremely careless with the truth, who is preying on the fears and uncertainties of the American public," declared Jimmy Carter. George Bush said there are skeptics about who seek the "cheap and easy way out" through demagogy. Bill Clinton lamented that opposition to NAFTA is rooted in "the fears and insecurities" of the middle class.

While the burst of presidential oratory may or may not halt the erosion of support for the pact on Capitol Hill, it did produce a commitment from Mr. Clinton to fight "every step of the way" for NAFTA's approval. He is to go to New Orleans today to extol the advantages of linking the United States, Mexico and Canada in the world's largest free trade zone. But after that the administration's focus is expected to switch to its health care financing reforms and the hard work for NAFTA will have to be carried on by administration lobbyists in Congress.

If NAFTA is to pass, it will probably be very late in the legislative session and by the slimmest of margins. Right now it is behind -- and falling.

Members of Congress should listen to the arguments of leaders (including Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan) with a presidential perspective. All express concern about the impact of a NAFTA defeat in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Mr. Ford predicted a wave of illegal immigration to this country. Mr. Carter foresaw a setback for human rights and democracy. Mr. Bush lauded the dramatic reforms of Mexican President Carlos Salinas. If NAFTA is defeated, he warned, "the biggest loser will be the good ol' U.S.A."

But in the end, it will be Mr. Clinton who has to make this fight. He showed courage in rejecting the politically easy course of opposing a GOP-drafted treaty. And by negotiating side

agreements to protect the environment and labor standards that he signed yesterday, he has put his own imprint upon NAFTA. The world will be watching to see if he can prevail in this important foreign policy initiative.

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