Clinton Picks An Unlikely Soldier For The Trade Wars

With his budget nearing passage, the key challenge now facing Bill Clinton is pushing the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress. That makes it all the more puzzling why Clinton is offering the job of chief NAFTA salesman to William Daley, a veteran Chicago pol with little Washington experience. The choice may solve a political problem for Clinton, but many NAFTA supporters doubt whether Daley is the best man to win approval for the troubled pact.

Daley, who ran Clinton's Illinois campaign, has been in a snit ever since he was passed over for the job he really wanted: Transportation Secretary. When he lost out to Federico Pe a, the White House dangled other posts, but Daley told the Chicago Tribune: "I was interested in one job, and I didn't get it. The rest is all B.S." Meanwhile, brother Richard has criticized Clinton for reneging on promises and letting down political allies.

BRUISED EGO. If Daley, the son of legendary Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and brother of current Mayor Richard M., comes aboard, he'd step into the middle of an ongoing Administration struggle over trade strategy. U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, a onetime California pol, is stocking his shop with political hands. Economic advisers, however, fear that Kantor risks giving up too much to entrenched opponents of trade liberalization. That's why National Economic Council Chief Robert E. Rubin and Treasury Secretary Lloyd M. Bentsen put Rubin's deputy, W. Bowman Cutter, in charge of U.S.-Japan trade talks rather than Kantor.

Daley has been reluctant to enlist in the trade wars. Earlier, he stiffed an offer to become ambassador to the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade. But White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. (Mack) McLarty III accomplished two things by persuading Daley to consider the NAFTA job. His courtship assuaged the bruised egos of both Daleys. And McLarty eased fears among NAFTA backers on Capitol Hill that the lobbying task was too big for Kantor to handle. NEC chief Rubin says the Administration has plenty of econo-pundits to make the intellectual case for NAFTA. "What we need," he says, "is somebody to act as a campaign manager."

To be sure, Daley's knowledge of Chicago's wards is impressive, but NAFTA poses challenges beyond his experience. Republicans, who are ideologically committed to free trade, generally support the pact but have little enthusiasm for handing Clinton a major victory. Democrats are deeply split. Pro-union, urban liberals probably will oppose the deal under any circumstances. A large swing group is holding to see what sort of side agreements the White House comes up with on worker and environmental protection.

Given this ticklish task, NAFTA boosters think the coordinator's post should have gone to a veteran Washington hand. "I'm befuddled," fumes a Democratic strategist close to Clinton. "How does this appointment help NAFTA?" Daley's defenders reply that while he may not have put in many laps around the Beltway, it would be wrong to sell him short. Citing Daley's long involvement in Presidential politics, Chicago consultant Don Rose says: "It's not like he's just in from the provinces. If his job is to be a schmoozer, he could be a good choice." Daley, for his part, says he intends to use his political contacts to "build support for NAFTA outside Washington."

Daley clearly has his work cut out for him. Until now, the debate about NAFTA has been dominated by talk of lost jobs and falling wages. If Bill Daley can come up with an argument for the pact that can be understood in a Chicago tavern, he'll go a long way toward shifting the debate in Clinton's favor.

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