NAFTA boosts Clinton's clout, analysts say

November 19, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton strode across the South Lawn of the White House yesterday, and as the Marine band played "Hail to the Chief" and his shiny helicopter idled in the background, he thanked staffers for helping him pass the North American Free Trade Agreement -- and then flew off to Seattle and a brighter future for his administration.

Mr. Clinton said his come-from-behind victory in the House of Representatives Wednesday night would help him as he headed to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, where he hopes to persuade Japan, China, Korea and other U.S. trading rivals to open up their difficult-to-penetrate markets.

But the fallout for Mr. Clinton in Washington could be significant as well.

After 10 months in office, the president established that he, and not the entrenched Democratic dons on Capitol Hill, controls the political agenda. He did that by appealing, for the first time in his presidency, for Republican votes.

"He put together a coalition from the center on out," said Al From, president of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council. "He went to the guy everybody in the Democratic Party hates -- Newt Gingrich -- and he said, 'Let's put this together because it's good for the country.' "

"He also laid to rest any lingering notions that he is not a fighter," added White House counselor David R. Gergen.

When Mr. Clinton returns from Seattle, his new reputation as a tough guy will serve him well as Congress deals with his initiatives on campaign finance reform, Vice President Al Gore's "reinventing government" proposals, the overhaul of welfare, crime legislation and, next year, the biggie: health care reform.

A bitter AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, the leader of the NAFTA opposition, said yesterday that he believes the president alienated the very congressional Democrats he was counting on for support on health care.

"I cannot help but think that this NAFTA issue has damaged the prospects for the successful achievement of that legislation," he said.

But several congressional leaders, including some of those who opposed Mr. Clinton on NAFTA, predicted that the health care plan will reunite the president and his trade deal opponents. "I don't think it will take very long," said House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt.

In last year's presidential campaign, Mr. Clinton promised to be "a new kind of Democrat," but as president, on issues ranging from his call for government-sponsored universal health care coverage and liberalized family leave policies to his reluctance to involve the United States in foreign wars, Mr. Clinton had aligned himself with the liberal policies the Democratic Party had staked out for the past 25 years.

Then came NAFTA, which would create the world's largest free trade zone among the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Mr. Clinton looked into the maw of the Democrats' most cherished and entrenched public interest groups -- and refused to blink.

The president threw the weight of his entire administration behind NAFTA despite the opposition of two of the three top Democratic leaders in the House, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Democratic National Committee and organized labor.

"We're going to throw your ass out of office," union leader William Bywater told pro-NAFTA Democrats.

Mr. Clinton responded by assuring Republicans that if they voted for the plan he wouldn't stand by and let the Democratic Party beat them up in next year's elections.

Mr. Kirkland asserted earlier this week that in so doing, Mr. Clinton was "abdicating" his leadership of the Democratic Party." The president replied coolly that his primary job is to be president "of the United States."

Mr. Clinton originally challenged the Democratic Party's power structure on this issue in May 1991. That month, at the Democratic Leadership Council's convention in Cleveland, Mr. Clinton, the group's chairman, gaveled a pro-NAFTA resolution to passage even though, days before, the executive council of the Democratic National Committee had come out against NAFTA on a 19-to-3 vote.

The bill came due this autumn, and Mr. Clinton had to go to Mr. Gingrich, House minority whip, to ask how many Republican votes the White House could count on.

The answer came back: If the White House could get just 100 of the 258 House Democrats to buck labor and vote for the agreement, the Republicans would do the rest.

Wednesday night it all came together.

"Partisan gridlock has been killing this country. . . . This coalition can be the new majority," Mr. From said.

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