Daley leads sales pitch for administration ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

TAKING THE PLUNGE ON NAFTA

October 09, 1993|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Twenty-five years ago, when William M. Daley paid his first visit to the White House with his father, Chicago's legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley, he and his brother Rich -- now the current Chicago mayor -- were invited by President Lyndon B. Johnson to swim in the White House pool. As the two older men lunched, the Daley brothers took a memorable dip.

The pool later was boarded over by President Richard M. Nixon, but Bill Daley is back and has taken a plunge of another sort at the request of another president. At Bill Clinton's urging, the Chicago lawyer and political strategist has dived into the unenviable task of selling the North American Free Trade Agreement at a time when many are convinced that NAFTA is sinking.

Mr. Daley, 45, acknowledges that it will be a challenge to win congressional approval of NAFTA against opposition that includes organized labor, former presidential candidates Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, and probably a majority of Democrats in Congress. Those foes have been successful in a sales job of their own: that NAFTA will cost American jobs, in what Mr. Perot likes to describe as "the giant sucking sound" of those jobs going south to Mexico.

As head of the NAFTA task force, Mr. Daley says his priority is "to neutralize that argument" in the minds of voters and of the House and Senate members sharply attuned to the attitudes of their constituents back home.

To that end, an array of administration surrogate speakers, including such outsiders as Lee A. Iacocca, the former Chrysler Corp. chairman, and possibly former President Ronald Reagan, will be on the stump or in television commercials in coming weeks.

Mr. Daley calculates that there are more than 100 Democratic House members still on the fence on NAFTA. He hopes to corral 30 to 50 of them, along with a substantial Republican House vote, to win the agreement's approval.

The administration is well behind, he says, "but we'll be in the hunt" by the time the votes are counted before the Jan. 1 deadline. Mr. Clinton has told the House and Senate leadership, Mr. Daley says, that he definitely wants an up or down vote on it by year's end, or much sooner.

Because organized labor is so vehemently against NAFTA and because Mr. Daley has strong political ties to labor, the assumption has been that Mr. Clinton tapped his Illinois campaign manager to help turn the labor leaders around.

There is virtually no chance of that happening, Mr. Daley concedes. Rather, his assignment is to rally public support that can move fence-straddling legislators, and to help them in other ways.

Mr. Daley says many Democrats in the House are not particularly opposed to NAFTA, but they need the campaign contributions they get from labor -- money that assuredly will be denied them if they vote for it. So one way to court them is to give them a hand in fund raising, providing crowd-drawing speakers.

Mr. Daley says he has taken the job because of Mr. Clinton's commitment to NAFTA and because he will have to give only four months to it -- minus time back in Chicago this month to see the White Sox play in the American League Championship Series.

He acknowledges having come down with a mild case of Potomac Fever after a post in the Clinton Cabinet -- secretary of transportation -- was waved under his nose and then given to Federico F. Pena, the former mayor of Denver. This stint as the NAFTA field general, he says, may "get it out of my system."

The public limelight up to now has never been Bill Daley's choice. Although he often is referred to in Chicago political circles as "the smart brother," he has willingly played a behind-the-scenes role in his eldest brother's successful climb to the mayoralty.

The youngest of four boys and two girls, he is a member of the prestigious law firm of Mayer, Brown and Platt, to which he returned after a short stint as a Chicago bank president and to which, presumably, he will return after the NAFTA vote.

Mr. Daley's acceptance of the temporary task may be smarter than it looks, one longtime Chicago political observer suggests. "After rubbing shoulders with the president of the United States and all those senators, he will come back with enhanced status )) that I imagine will be a real asset to the law firm," this observer says.

Beyond that, win or lose, Mr. Daley puts Mr. Clinton in his debt by taking on such a thankless task, especially after being turned down for the Cabinet position. If he wins he will be a hero in the White House. If he loses, it will be hard to fault him, considering the heavy opposition to the agreement even before he took the job.

Many Chicagoans impressed with his political skills a few years back were expressing the view that "the wrong Daley" was running for mayor. That attitude demeaned his brother, a longtime state senator and later state's attorney, as bland, uncharismatic and no Albert Einstein -- a man who had flunked the bar examination twice before passing.

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