Clinton needs NAFTA to help him gain respect ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- After much early speculation that President Clinton might yield to critics of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and duck the fight for its congressional approval until next year, he appears committed now to go to the mat on it, even at the risk of defeat.

In signing the side agreements with Mexico designed to quell concerns from American labor and environmental groups that low Mexican wages and lack of costly anti-pollution safeguards would jeopardize their interests, the president acknowledged to supporters that "it will be a hard fight," but added that "I expect to be with all of you every step of the way."

Politically, it would be psychologically risky for Clinton to downgrade the NAFTA campaign after the buildup for it over the late spring and early summer. Although he eventually won his most important legislative battle so far -- his deficit-reduction package -- concessions he made along the way left him with a reputation in Washington as a president too easily "rolled" by opponents. That reputation was reinforced by his disinclination to fight for key appointees such as old friend Lani Guinier as head of the civil rights division at Justice.

In fact, following through on NAFTA in the face of the very strong and very vocal opposition of important Democratic constituencies like organized labor and some environmental groups provides Clinton a needed opportunity to demonstrate that he is willing to take on a fight and, if necessary, lose it because he is committed to his position.

To that end, the president and key Cabinet members already are taking to the hustings to generate public support for NAFTA, an issue not yet well understood by the public and about which opinion is yet to be firmly formed. White House insiders insist that it still remains on a priority par with health care and reinventing government, as indicated by the special task force headed by Chicago lawyer/politico Bill Daley to win its acceptance.

The fate of Clinton's defeated jobs stimulus proposal, and the close call on the budget package, are foremost in the minds of Daley and other administration advocates of NAFTA as they plot and carry out their strategy. They remember that Clinton kicked off his ambitious economic plan with a strong State of the Union speech, then let the Republicans led by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole win the public-persuasion battle by painting Clinton as just another Democratic tax-and-spender squeezing all taxpayers, when in fact the tax burden will fall overwhelmingly on the affluent.

This time around on NAFTA, Daley says, the sales pitch is being "front-ended" -- that is, the administration is going to lay out its arguments for the agreement before the opposition -- which on ** this measure includes the ubiquitous Ross Perot -- similarly succeeds in poisoning the public climate against it.

Daley's operation is advancing in four areas -- communications and press, outreach to interest groups, congressional relations and scheduling of high-level surrogates.

Daley, brother of present Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and son of the legendary Mayor Richard J., has strong contacts within labor and among Democratic Party activists, and while he isn't expected to convert much of the labor leadership that opposes NAFTA, he may be able to moderate the opposition.

l The administration's point men with Congress are U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, who negotiated the side agreements with Mexico, and Secretary of Treasury Lloyd Bentsen, the former Texas senator who knows his way around Capitol Hill and is predicting victory.

Among the Cabinet-member surrogates who will be out to speak for NAFTA, Daley says, will be Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in a rare involvement in domestic politics for an occupant of that office.

At the same time, a political operation involving some of the key figures in Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign will be assisting Daley.

But with so many Democrats in Congress opposed, the burden will fall heavily on the president himself to demonstrate the leadership that can bring him the respect that has eluded him so far.

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