Clinton Can Still Straddle On Nafta

Bill Clinton has a problem. His backers in the labor movement have made defeat of the North American Free Trade Agreement their top legislative priority. The attitudes of another key source of Clinton's support, environmentalists, range from skepticism about the pact to outright hostility to it. But Clinton is a professed free-trader and has already come out--in principle--for extending the current free-trade pact with Canada to Mexico. How can he endorse the pact formally without offending key elements of his coalition? His answer: Use powerful congressional leaders, especially Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.)--a moderate with strong links to business--for cover.

With the pact about to go to Congress for ratification, President Bush is stepping up the pressure on Clinton. The Arkansas governor says he needs more time to study the agreement, but the White House is blasting him as "slick Willie," trying to have it both ways. "We boil it all down very simply to job creation vs. job destruction," says Bush campaign adviser Jill Hanson. And by portraying the Democrat as a lackey of Big Labor, the GOP hopes to attract both nonunion workers and the small but growing group of business executives who lean toward Clinton but who regard his position on NAFTA as a key test of his intentions. "Clinton has straddled the trade issue so far," says Democratic media consultant David Axelrod. "This has allowed Republicans to paint him as a captive of special interests."

LEGAL SCRUB. The Democratic strategy to counter this assault was unveiled on Sept. 8, when the Administration sent U.S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills to the Finance Committee with the 2,000-page text of NAFTA. The normally cordial relations between Hills and Bentsen broke down as the chairman attacked Bush for "deliberately trying to politicize this agreement" by insisting that Clinton "sign on the dotted line when there wasn't even a dotted line to sign."

Bentsen has a point. Although NAFTA negotiators declared victory in August, the announcement of an agreement--released just before the Republican convention--was premature. In fact, bargainers from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico are still ironing out details and poring over translations--a process Hills calls "a legal scrub"--at Washington's Watergate Hotel. Hills was forced to admit that the document she took to the Senate wasn't final. Nor were the accompanying reports of 40 industry advisory committees ready yet.

Democrats in Congress, even those on the record in support of NAFTA, will attack the Administration for failing to offer enough protection to the environment or to workers who will be displaced by free trade. Max S. Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of a Senate trade subcommittee, has been a strong supporter of the NAFTA talks. But, he told Hills, he won't "fully endorse" a "flawed" pact "rushed to meet the opening gavel" of the GOP convention. In key areas, "the environment has been ignored," he added.

Democrats heap scorn on Bush's five-year, $10 billion "worker adjustment" plan. Bentsen called it "a cruel joke on those workers who will be hurt by NAFTA, who deserve a serious response from their government." Bush's refusal to explain its funding, he charged, "is like showing us a house without telling us about the mortgage."

Clinton, anxious neither to alienate labor nor tarnish his free-trade credentials, wants to stay on the fence for a little while. Ultimately, he's expected to endorse NAFTA. But the loose ends the Administration has left hanging from the hastily drawn trade pact may just let him get away with his straddle for a bit longer.

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