NAFTA became test of president's will PRESIDENT WINS NAFTA SHOWDOWN

November 18, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,JEFF DAUBER/SUN GRAPHIC -- Washington BureauWashington Bureau Staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Two months ago, while official Washington was basking in the glow of the historic peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, President Clinton was huddled with three former presidents inside his family's quarters at the White House.

He had drawn together former presidents Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush for an extraordinary endorsement the following day of an initiative all four considered as important to the United States as Mideast peace: The North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mr. Clinton had endorsed the pact during the 1992 campaign and reiterated his support for it publicly. But no one outside the White House, it seemed, believed he really cared.

"What do I have to do?" the president complained to an aide.

On the day of his joint news conference with the former presidents, however, those who were paying close attention saw that Mr. Clinton knew he was in a fight -- and that he intended to prevail.

In the East Room of the White House, he threw down the gauntlet:

"We will make our case as hard and as well as we can," he said. "And, though the fight might be difficult, I deeply believe we will win."

It would take a while for the outside world to catch on, but NAFTA was on its way to victory.

"That was the first real shot across the bow of the anti-NAFTA people," said a White House aide. "From that moment on, the president never wavered, never went off-message, never failed to say the tough things.

"And no one [in the White House] ever had to explain again why NAFTA was important."

NAFTA was a Republican idea, originally offered by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 campaign and painstakingly negotiated by President George Bush.

But it is clear in the aftermath of last night's 234-200 vote that only a Democratic president could have gotten it approved.

The trade deal was "dead on arrival" before his election last fall, Mr. Clinton said this week. Most of his party's representatives in Congress and the most powerful Democratic interest group, organized labor, opposed it.

Some of the president's own advisers, including George Stephanopoulos, his closest personal aide, urged him to find a way to abandon the agreement.

But even as many were calling NAFTA a lost cause, the apparatus was being constructed behind the scenes that would lead to victory.

Last summer, the president tapped William Daley, a well-connected Chicago Democrat to be his NAFTA "czar." White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty quickly put together a staff for him from a list of the best available administration talent to lead the lobbying effort.

All had communications or marketing backgrounds; most were veterans of the 1992 campaign.

Chosen to head the day-to-day operation was Rahm Emanuel, who'd been miscast as White House political director, but who, more than anyone, came to epitomize the well-organized guerrilla tactics that would put the White House over the top.

Every morning at 9:15, the 30 or so aides in the NAFTA "war-room" -- actually a suite of offices in a White House annex -- would go over names of members of Congress kept by White House lobbyist Susan Brophy. Every name was entered in a computer, along with a list of the members' reservations about NAFTA.

"We'd go over a name, and say, 'That guy is concerned about this issue -- let's have these three people call him,' " said Christopher Dorval, a member of the team.

An example of how this system worked involved Democratic Rep. Norman Y. Mineta of San Jose, Calif.

Mr. Mineta has strong ties to organized labor, but many of his district's successful high-tech companies told him flatly that NAFTA would enable them to increase exports to Mexico immediately.

He also has an almost family-like relationship to Santa Clara County's cut flower industry, an industry started by his fellow Japanese-Americans -- and one that would be threatened by unfettered competition from Mexico. Finally, he was concerned about human rights violations in Mexico.

So the "call sheets" went out from the White House. Former President Carter and Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, a fellow Californian, phoned with the same message: We share your worries about human rights in Mexico, but reformers in that country tell us that this treaty will strengthen, not weaken, their hand.

Then Mr. Clinton met Mr. Mineta in the Oval Office and promised to have his administration monitor the cut-flower industry. A follow-up call came from the president on Monday. An hour later, Mr. Mineta, his eyes brimming with tears, pronounced NAFTA the most gut-wrenching decision he's faced in Congress. Then he endorsed it.

Other members had less personal, but equally troublesome considerations to resolve.

The jobs question

Democratic Rep. L. F. Payne of Virginia believed NAFTA would create, not cost, jobs.

But with 45,000 textile and apparel workers in his district, he wanted to make sure his vote didn't cost them their jobs -- or him his seat in Congress.

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