NAFTA: Make-or-Break for Clinton?

November 21, 1993|By PAUL WEST

WASHINGTON — Washington.-- Make-or-break for Bill Clinton. Win or lose the presidency. That was the White House spin before the showdown with Congress over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mr. Clinton, of course, will keep his job for three more years, even if he loses every time on Capitol Hill. By scoring big on NAFTA last week, he surely dodged a severe blow to his leadership. But one high-profile victory doesn't make a successful presidency.

Just ask Jimmy Carter.

Anyone searching for a parallel to the NAFTA fight would be hard-pressed to find a better example than the struggle over the Panama Canal treaties.

A newly-elected Democratic president had entered an emotionally-charged debate involving a neighbor to the south. the president and the elites were on one side of the issue, while most ordinary people were on the other. (The grass-roots opposition to the canal treaties was led by Ronald Reagan, who stoked the controversy in his unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign).

Like Mr. Clinton, who is pushing an international agreement negotiated by his Republican predecessor, Mr. Carter inherited the plan to relinquish American control over the canal from the Republican president he unseated.

In waging their respective, come-from-behind battles, both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Carter chose to override some of their closest advisers in the White House, who warned about wasting political clout on an issue that could be put off until much later in the presidency.

This time around, Mr. Clinton recruited some of the same officials past administrations who helped Mr. Carter make his case. Even their arguments seemed interchangeable.

Fifteen years, almost to the day, before he stood with Mr. Clinton on NAFTA, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned Congress that "a defeat" for Mr. Carter on the canal treaty "would weaken the president's international authority at the beginning of his term. . . . It would jeopardize our entire Western Hemisphere relations."

After an all-out lobbying blitz involving nearly every member of the administration (the most valuable player on the president's team, in both cases, was his vice president), Congress reluctantly agreed to go along.

In the aftermath of the canal vote, Mr. Carter's popularity rose, as Mr. Clinton's likely will, too. Mr. Carter used his success as a springboard to several other foreign policy triumphs that year, most notably the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement.

But the foreign policy successes did not translate into political strength at home. And as the Carter presidency began to unravel under the weight of a faltering economy, members of Congress became increasingly unwilling to take political risks on his behalf, in some cases citing the canal treaty vote as the sort of sacrifice they would not make again.

"The price he had to pay in political capital to win on that issue may well have weakened the remainder of his presidency," says Robert A. Strong, a political scientist at Washington and Lee University, who is writing a book on the Carter administration's foreign policy.

But he and other analysts caution that it may well be going too far to conclude that Mr. Carter's fate will be Mr. Clinton's, too.

I.M. Destler, director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland in College Park, says that Mr. Clinton's reputation has been enhanced in the NAFTA fight in ways that Mr. Carter's was not.

"Carter wasn't thought to have been that effective" in his one-on-one meetings with undecided members of Congress, says Mr. Destler, a leading expert on foreign policy and trade.

"My sense is, Clinton seems to have handled the personal politics of it very well."

Indeed, Mr. Clinton's success at the inside game is already prompting comparisons of his wheeling-and-dealing skills to those of the master, Lyndon B. Johnson.

That's the sharpest possible contrast to Mr. Carter, whose well-known distaste for the grubbier side of politics is still remembered in Washington and may have contributed to his failure to gain a second term.

How the NAFTA vote plays out in the end, analysts agree, will depend largely on the strength and duration of the current economic recovery. If the economy falters, Ross Perot and other NAFTA opponents could be as successful in using it against the president and his supporters as conservative critics of the Panama Canal were in the 1978 and 1980 elections.

Already there is grumbling that Mr. Clinton's willingness to cut last-minute deals will become the model for his presidency -- and that the health reform bill could fail if it gets too heavily laden with goodies.

Regardless of how the NAFTA fight comes to be seen -- and some political strategists believe it is likely to have no real lasting impact -- it may be a serious mistake for Mr. Clinton to keep staking his presidency on such issues.

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