WASHINGTON -- A president has problems when his performance calls to mind not Washington and Lincoln but Gilbert and Sullivan. President Clinton's inability to hold his party to its traditional support of liberalized trade suggests a comparison with the Duke of Plaza-Toro from the operetta ''The Gondoliers'':
In enterprise of martial kind
When there was any fighting,
He led his regiment from behind --
He found it less exciting.
Granted, Mr. Clinton was belatedly frenetic in his unsuccessful attempts to buy, or at least rent, enough House Democrats -- a third would have sufficed -- to win ''fast track'' authority for trade agreements. But there are subjects concerning which the only way to control Congress is to persuade the country. Thus it is time for this most loquacious of presidents -- whose idea of adventurous leadership is to praise ''diversity training'' and urge yet more ''conversations'' about the intelligentsia's obsession, race -- to champion liberalized trade.
Adlai Stevenson used to be a particular pinup of Democrats, but he is probably just a rumor to Bill Clinton, who was only 6 in 1952 when Stevenson, the Democrat's presidential nominee, said: ''It is not possible for this nation to be at once politically internationalist and economically isolationist. This is just as insane as asking one Siamese twin to high dive while the other plays the piano.'' That sort of vigorous rhetoric can be supplemented by a fable retold by Steven Landsburg of the University of Rochester in his new book ''Fair Play.''
A national hero
The fable concerns an entrepreneur who became a national hero by seeming to invent a mysterious technology for turning grain into exceptionally high-quality cars. Secrecy surrounded the entrepreneur's seaside factory, into which vast trainloads of grain poured, and from which came cars better and cheaper than those coming from the familiar domestic manufacturers. Car buyers were pleased, as were farmers supplying the grain. Some older auto firms lost market share, so some of their workers lost their jobs, but this was deemed an acceptable cost of technological progress.
Then one day a journalist pierced the veil of secrecy and found that the factory was an empty shell opening onto a dock where ships unloaded cars from abroad, and took away grain in exchange. So in the public's mind, the entrepreneur was transformed from hero to villain.
But why? asks Mr. Landsburg. Are not cheaper, better cars desirable, whether acquired by technology or trade?
It is probably too much to expect President Clinton to spend some of his political capital in a vigorous, principled, teaching crusade for free trade, for which fast track is necessary. American politicians can be divided between those who have sought office because they wanted to do something and those who sought office because they just wanted to be something. The latter category includes Mr. Clinton.
He has never been anything but an officeholder, and has not in five well-scrutinized years revealed a principle about which the public is skeptical and for which he will wage a sustained defense.
Al Gore, like the man who elevated him to vice presidential glory, is a political lifer who acquired new stature when in 1993, defending NAFTA, and free trade generally, he trounced Ross Perot in a televised debate.
When Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt and his allies say skepticism about freer trade represents fidelity to traditional Democratic values, they have half a point. Actually, the 19th-century Republican Party, servant of manufacturing interests, was the party of high tariffs. But the 20th-century Democratic Party has indeed long sought to increase government's sway in economic life -- to be less reverent about the role of markets in the allocation of wealth and opportunity. On welfare reform, on the balanced-budget agreement and now on free trade Mr. Gephardt has drawn a line in the sand between himself and Al Gore. The stakes of this Democratic debate are enormous.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 11/20/97