President Clinton has been playing a tight inside game in negotiating the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Instead of hitting the stump and publicly shouting the verities of NAFTA--free trade with Mexico will boost exports and generate jobs--he has chosen to deal, quietly exchanging government goodies for congressional votes. To the surprise of many Beltway pundits, the strategy appears to be working. The Administration seems to be garnering enough votes for passage. Chalk up one for the Prez?

Yes--and no. Without doubt, it took courage to adopt a Republican free-trade treaty and push it against a united front of labor-union opposition. With congressional elections a year away and 1996 looming, going head to head with the unions, the most powerful force in the Democratic Party, wasn't easy. But President Clinton did the stand-up thing, and the country will benefit.

But at a price. By not using his office as a bully pulpit for NAFTA and free trade sooner, President Clinton gave the airwaves over to the forces of protectionism, isolationism, and general yahooism. A weird witches' brew of opposition, including Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader, and the usually sober Sierra Club, has had free rein for months to play on economic and social insecurities. Strange paranoid passions have been unleashed: fear of loss of national sovereignty and a suspicion of international corporations conspiring to hurt the working class.

This nativism will not go away anytime soon. It is, sadly, the price the country will pay for the inside, dealmaking strategy used to pass NAFTA.

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