If President Clinton really has to choose in the waning days of this Congress between a health care bill that is only a shadow of what he once proposed and world trade reform of vast historic and economic significance, he should obviously opt for the latter. Objectively, the two issues as they now stand in the legislative agenda are not comparable either in substance or in prospects for passage. Trade is do-able; health care is not.
One problem for the president and his fellow Democrats is how the plug is to be pulled on terminally ill health care legislation that was once heralded as the defining initiative of the Clinton era. The Republicans obviously want the Democrats to do the honors. But the White House and its allies on Capitol Hill are just as eager to have the GOP take on the Dr. Kevorkian role.
These Washington high-jinks are entertaining, to be sure, but there will be time a-plenty after Congress adjourns to examine what went wrong with health care. For now, it is enough to note that the president and his wife overreached with extravagant excess while their Republican foes were always ready for the kill if they determined it was politically safe to do so. The first set of circumstances, which confused and turned off the public, inexorably led to the second.
For some time there has been reason to hope that a modified bill crafted by a bipartisan group of "mainstream" senators might make it through to passage. But the financing problems posed by a medical system that accounts for one-seventh of the U.S. economy are proving too contradictory to produce easy compromise. If Congress were to pass a patched-together bill in the election-year rush-rush for adjournment, it could transgress the medical profession's mantra: "Do no harm."
Trade legislation, a matter of intense world attention, is quite a different matter. The drive to liberalize world commerce began in the Reagan-Bush years and lends itself to bipartisan cooperation, as was evidenced last year in passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The accord signed last year to broaden the existing General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade into a new World Trade Organization covering not only manufacturing but also service industries, agriculture and intellectual property is a very good deal for this country and the whole global economy. It is an endeavor that reflects well not only on its GOP initiators but on the Democratic administration that brought it to fruition.
Although the trade measure has been needlessly encumbered by White House catering to labor and environmental groups and by cynical Republican attempts to deny Mr. Clinton any pre-election legislative achievements, at last it appears on the way to passage. If so, it will be the major achievement of the 1994 session, far transcending the headline-grabbling crime bill. So if President Clinton has to make a choice, reality and good sense suggest it should be trade, not health care.