The comeback president

November 18, 1993

Only days ago, the chances looked slim that President Clinton could avoid a debilitating defeat on the North American Free Trade Agreement. But with his victory in the House last night, he wrote a new chapter in the "comeback kid" saga that has marked his political career.

NAFTA, an agreement originally negotiated by a Republican president and vehemently opposed by major Democratic constituencies, was a curious issue for a Democratic president to bill as a "make-or-break" vote for his presidency. But he was right to place the stakes so high.

If NAFTA had gone down to defeat, the repercussions could have been enormous. At home, it would have been a major victory for H. Ross Perot, who has already announced that the Clinton health care reform plan is his next major target.

It would also have spurred endless analysis of the president's failure to have his way, analysis that can sometimes create its own self-fulfilling prophecies. All of that would have been compounded by an exceedingly nervous reaction on Wall Street.

The international repercussions would have been even more unsettling and far-reaching. In a world desperate for leadership only the U.S. can provide, Congress would have sent a message that the country is not up to the task. President Clinton would go into an important summit with Pacific region leaders next week with a distinct handicap. The international GATT talks would flounder. Mexicans would be left steaming about the rebuff and would likely turn to other economic powers to cultivate trade.

The NAFTA debate largely revolved around speculative projections of jobs to be gained or lost. The most reliable analysts concluded that benefits and liabilities would largely even out, leaving a slight gain in jobs and other economic rewards. Given that assessment, the best way to understand the fury of the debate is as a high-stakes political showdown, a game of raw power.

In the process, President Clinton angered NAFTA opponents by doing what good presidents always do on issues they deem important -- wielding the power of office. Like sausage-making, it is not a pretty sight. But in the end, it worked. By next year's elections NAFTA could be only a dimly remembered footnote for most voters, especially if the economy holds its own or improves.

What history will record is that with NAFTA the nation moved toward open trade relations and away from protectionism. And that a young president took a big risk -- and won.

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