WASHINGTON -- A year ago Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination and then the presidency by offering himself as "a different kind of Democrat." By winning the fourth-quarter fight for the North American Free Trade Agreement, he now has demonstrated what that means.
The Clinton message in the 1992 campaign was that he represented a break with the long line of liberal Democrats -- the George McGoverns and Walter Mondales and Michael Dukakises -- who were still wedded to the social policies and programs of the Great Society and still driven by the economic thinking of organized labor and the other special constituencies of his party.
But if there is one clear and potentially lasting political message in the NAFTA result, it is that the Democrats now have a president who is willing to defy both Big Labor and the liberal core of his party and even make common cause with Republicans if that is what he must do to write a different definition of a Democratic leader.
Perhaps equally important, for the first time since he took office last January, Mr. Clinton has shown a willingness to do the things that constitute political leadership in a city in which there are always dozens of cross-currents operating against any bold step.
In the long run, the political wisdom of the commitment to NAFTA may never become entirely clear. If the economy is healthy when the president runs for re-election in 1996, the dark predictions about how the agreement would cost 500,000 jobs will be forgotten. If, on the other hand, the economy is struggling, NAFTA will be only one of many issues on which Mr. Clinton will be vulnerable.
If there is a consensus among political professionals here, it is that the fate of the president's health care reform program will have far more to do with how he is viewed not just by history but by the electorate three years from now.
Unlike NAFTA, health care is an issue with the potential to touch millions of American lives directly and quickly.
On the face of it, Mr. Clinton's willingness to antagonize the left wing of his party on NAFTA might suggest he will find it more difficult to enlist those same Democrats and labor leaders for health care reforms.
But the way politics here works, the reverse probably will be true.
Although it is fair to say Mr. Clinton evoked some hot reactions from old allies -- Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, perhaps his most important black supporter last year, said NAFTA "betrays the American people" -- it is equally fair to say the president has shown the kind of political skills and muscle that are universally admired within the political community.
And it is equally accurate to say that union leaders and liberal politicians are too pragmatic to walk away from the first Democratic president in 12 years. As one leading union official put it privately the other day, "This is one thing and when it's over, it's over."
There are already howls of outrage, of course, about how the president achieved his majority by wheeling and dealing, providing protection for citrus and tomato growers here, a bridge there, a "comfort letter" over there.
Ross Perot, with his customary hyperbole, called it "the biggest purchase of votes in our country's history."
And David E. Bonior, the Democratic whip and leader of the opposition to NAFTA in Congress, called it "NAFTA Claus time at the White House."
But the tactics Mr. Clinton employed were those for which Lyndon B. Johnson was widely admired in the world of politics -- and those which another Democrat, Jimmy Carter, refused to use to his ultimate sorrow 15 years ago.
Mr. Clinton has by no means dissolved all the doubts about his ability to perform effectively in the White House, doubts born of his faltering and sometimes timid performance in assembling his government and putting through his tax-deficit reduction program last winter.
But the president has now signaled the political community that he is willing to assume the responsibility for a difficult political assignment and, if necessary, confront both an ally as important as AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and a critic as important as Ross Perot.
He was willing to do so, moreover, when it was plain that a defeat would be seen as confirmation of his weakness as a national leader.
The result defines the power of the AFL-CIO as something less than what it had been credited with enjoying.
And it exposed the limits of the ability of Mr. Perot to use his money and access to television to dictate national directions.
But most significantly, it has made Mr. Clinton a winner in a political world where winning is the name of the game.