Clinton walks tightrope with trade, health issues ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

September 27, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- At the same time AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland was announcing his executive council's wholehearted support for President Clinton's health-care reform proposals the other day, television viewers around the country were digesting the union federation's hard-hitting commercial castigating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that Clinton has presented to Congress.

The juxtaposition underscores the political difficulties that the new president has invited by taking on more than one important legislative endeavor at a time. And it illustrates the tightrope he must walk in dealing with a constituency that traditionally has been one of the Democratic Party's strongest and -- at least until the Reagan era -- most loyal.

That same tightrope-walking can be seen in Clinton's decision to go to Michigan next month to attend a fund-raiser for Sen. Don Riegle, a strong supporter of health-care reform but among the Senate's most vociferous foes of NAFTA. Riegle, up for re-election in 1994 and struggling to overcome his identification as one of the infamous "Keating Five" of the savings-and-loan scandal, has called for the defeat at the polls of any member of Congress who votes for NAFTA -- even Democrats supporting the president of their own, and Riegle's, party.

White House political operatives say frankly that they need Riegle's vote on health-care reform, as well as the election of all the Democrats in the Senate they can get to keep that body out of Republican hands in 1994. Riegle administered some particularly bitter medicine to his prospective benefactor in the White House last weekend by sharing an anti-NAFTA platform in Lansing with Ross Perot, whose sniping at Clinton seems to get stronger with each passing day. But Clinton is turning the other cheek, and extending a helping hand to Riegle at the same time.

The president's willingness to do so is a measure of how important health-care reform is to him. Big Labor wants it too, but its leaders have no hesitancy in parting company with him on NAFTA, which they cast as a major "litmus test" of union solidarity and political clout. In their all-out drive to defeat the trade agreement, they are putting organized labor's reputation as a political force on the line every bit as much as Clinton is risking his in what is seen as an uphill fight for him.

The fact is that Big Labor's political bark has been much worse than its bite in recent years, and certainly during the 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Reagan particularly bloodied organized labor in his first year in the White House by breaking the strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) and barring strikers from further government employment in their profession. Clinton recently countermanded that order, but few of those affected are expected to apply so long after their banishment.

With the exception of an increase in the minimum wage in 1989, plant closing notification in 1990 and extensions of eligibility for unemployment benefits jammed down Bush's throat in 1991, labor has had a fairly weak record of legislative achievement on matters that can be clearly categorized as predominantly labor issues. Even with another Democrat, Jimmy Carter, in the White House, an agenda of labor law reform failed, as did a major push for common-situs picketing, the right to picket an entire building site in a labor dispute with one subcontractor.

Few would disagree that labor's political clout is a mere shadow today of what it was in 1944, when Franklin D. Roosevelt, in contemplating the selection of James Byrnes as his running mate, ordered aides to "clear it with Sidney" -- Sidney Hillman, then the CIO political director. Hillman rejected Byrnes as anti-labor and ultimately FDR chose Harry Truman. Today, Democratic presidents listen to the viewpoints of labor, but don't genuflect before them.

The opposition of organized labor to NAFTA, nevertheless, does complicate Clinton's task. However, since there doesn't seem much chance of winning labor over on the issue, he appears to be following the wise course of looking elsewhere for NAFTA support while holding fast to labor's essential backing on health-care reform.

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