Vice President Al Gore took on Ross Perot in his favorite forum -- the Larry King Show -- and soundly thrashed him in their NAFTA debate Tuesday night. Despite the barbs and the bitterness of the encounter, despite Mr. Gore's uncharacteristic aggressiveness and thorough preparation, what really defeated Mr. Perot was the inescapable logic of breaking down trade barriers and opening up markets with a resurgent Mexico.
"This is a good deal for America," Mr. Gore argued. With the elimination of high Mexican tariffs, U.S. corporations will have less incentive to move their plants south of the Rio Grande. Instead, they will be able to expand exports to a nation that is the gateway to all of Latin America while staying right where they are. No better case can be made that NAFTA will create more jobs -- plenty of them -- in the years ahead.
Nevertheless, the fate of the North American Free Trade Agreement was not settled by polls underscoring Mr. Gore's triumph. It is too late for all that. NAFTA's fate is in the hands of some two dozen House Democrats who are undecided -- or at least undeclared. Most are holding out for special deals and favors from the White House, some of which are not remotely connected to trade.
In a tactical sense, the administration scored a ten-strike by pumping up Mr. Perot as the prime spokesman for the crazy-quilt coalition of Naderites, ultra-nationalists, populists and labor unionists who are out to torpedo NAFTA.
The Texas billionaire fumbled badly in trying to make the transition from sound-bite to reasoned exposition, and in the process -- surprise -- found himself out-bullied by the usually reserved vice president. What will this do to Mr. Perot's future? If the pact is defeated, he probably will run for president in 1996 as an independent or a maverick, party-splitting Republican. If NAFTA passes, his ability to harass an administration that has survived one of its gravest tests will be diminished.
As Americans play parochial politics, a falling peso in Mexico shows how the economy there could suffer a blow-out if Congress goes the way of protectionism; stalled negotiations on the General Agreement and Trade reflect how much NAFTA is a test for U.S. credibility in seeking worldwide trade reforms, and Asian leaders preparing for a summit in Seattle one week from today are preparing to take the measure of the new administration.
In this high-stakes situation, the president turned to his vice president as part of his desperate effort to prevail on an issue of transcendent importance. It was a wise move, but not a decisive one.