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Nafta Wasn't Just About Politics for Bill Clinton

Russell L. Riley is an associate professor at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, where he is co-chairman of the Presidential Oral History Program. He is the author, most recently, of "Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History," to be published by Oxford University Press in October.
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Bill Clinton was an ardent backer of free trade even before he ran for president in 1992. Accordingly, a defining issue of his campaign was his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Once elected, he faced vigorous challenges on trade from within the Democratic Party and from organized labor, but in that difficult environment he deployed the full powers of the presidency to get Nafta approved. In this second of three excerpts from "Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History," some of his top aides recall that successful fight. 

Al From, head of the Democratic Leadership Council: In September 1991, we had a meeting of the so-called Clinton exploratory committee. He was thinking of running [for president]. It was a day-and-a-half meeting of all these people from around the country who were giving him their advice, and a lot of it was to back off on Nafta. At the end of it, Clinton listened and listened, and he finally just said, “If you want me to be a protectionist and an isolationist, get another candidate because I won’t do it.” I think that was a very important part of his presidency.

David Kusnet, speechwriter: During the campaign, Clinton had a very nuanced position on Nafta… What he said -- and this is very Clintonian, very complex -- was, at least in my view, not a way to fool people but a way to explore complex issues. He began with his usual rap in ’92. “The American people, working Americans, are taking it on the chin.” There were stagnant wages, rising unemployment, the whole litany … of what was happening on the border, the maquiladoras, the jobs fleeing to Mexico and so on.

Then he said, in effect, “But I have a secret for you. This is all happening now, before Nafta has gone into effect. You and I can argue about whether Nafta will have a positive effect or a negative effect, but here’s one thing I can tell you. Everything that you are afraid of happening with Nafta is already happening. That’s God’s honest truth.”…

Then he says, “If we do Nafta wrong, things will get worse.… But if we do Nafta right, things will not get better, but maybe we’ll be able to do the things that really matter.”

Mack McLarty, White House chief of staff: I asked the president three times if he was sure he wanted to go forward with Nafta. I knew that’s what I thought was the right decision, but there were different points of view in the White House. I recall riding in one evening from Andrews [Air Force Base] with him in the car, and I said, “Mr. President, now we’re getting ready to make this decision before the August [1993] break to announce we’re going forward on Nafta. Are you certain that’s the decision you want to close on?”

He looked at me, one of the few times he was slightly terse -- not rude -- and said, “Well, Mack, I told you this twice.” And I said, “Yes, sir, I understand that, but I want to be sure, because not everybody feels this is the right sequence of legislation.” He said, “I’m well aware of that. We need to go forward, or we’re going to lose it.”

William Galston, deputy domestic policy adviser: I think there was a reasonably clean decision made not to shelve Nafta during this period.... [The clock running for enactment] was one of the arguments in favor of not shelving it. On the other hand, lots of people were saying, “Mr. President, if health care goes down, your presidency may as well. Aren’t you taking risks that maybe you don’t have to take?”

So it was recognized that this was a fairly consequential decision. But the president, to his great credit -- knowing that he didn’t command anything like consensus, and perhaps not even a majority within his own party, and knowing that this would foul the political waters inside the party -- really thought that it was important to send a signal to the country and the world that he meant it when he said a more open regime and international trade were in the long-term interest of the United States. This is why in the endgame he took the unusual step of mobilizing several past presidents and bringing them to the White House. That was a sign of how important he thought the issue was to the national interest.

Mickey Kantor, U.S. trade representative: [He] wavered in June, in July of ’93.... If you ask me what was in his head -- he works on so many levels -- he may have been thinking he would have to back off ultimately with a Democratic Congress and the animosity toward Nafta. Because what would you say to your USTR [trade representative]? Even to me, as close as I was to him, he wouldn’t have said it to me even if he thought it. I don’t know if he thought it or not.

We got to June and July. He had agreed with Bob Rubin we had to go for the tax rise and what I’d call [a] fiscally responsible economic package. It was in the Congress and we needed every Democrat we could find, and we wanted to introduce health care. Nafta ran against both. At least, on the surface you look and say, “Wait a minute, Nafta is counter to our strategy, as an administration, because we lose Democrats. We can’t afford to lose Democrats. How are we going to do this?”

We had one big meeting in the White House.... Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this but I will say it, it’s clear. I said, “Look, if in fact we can’t get the stimulus package done and get health care introduced, ” which was so important to the administration, “Nafta will go bye-bye because all I have to do is be so tough on the environmental side agreements with Mexico and Canada [that they] will never agree. We’ll look good to Democrats, we can hold our votes.”

I said, “I don’t believe that is in the best interests of the country, in terms of trade and so on. I could argue this is a political decision that has to be made.” And we talked it through and never said, “No, we can’t do that. It wouldn’t be responsible to do that.” We actually had a discussion about that; there were maybe 15 people in the room.

We were in terrible trouble when we started in terms of votes. Terrible trouble. And the president, through sheer force of personality and brilliance of presentation day after day, brought Democrats and Republicans down to that White House and convinced them they had to do this. We did some horse trading. We opened the candy store, we gave away everything we could find in order to make this pass.

Roger Altman, deputy Treasury secretary: In the last 48 or 72 hours, because that vote was also a cliffhanger ... there were deals being cut like crazy, deals on tomatoes, deals on Florida citrus. Everything imaginable.... There were so many exceptions and carve-outs and so forth from the final bill that you couldn’t count them. Mexican trucking, citrus, tomatoes, I’m not joking. There were probably 25 major separate deals negotiated to win the passage.

William Galston: The two most significant economic decisions he made in ’93 ... were both agenda-driven and not poll-driven. [There] is no way that he polled his way to a Bob Rubin economic plan ... [and] you didn’t have to take more than a week of Democratic Politics 101 to know what a free-trade agenda was going to do to the party when the country perceptually was still mired in a fairly prolonged recession....

So I have to give Clinton a lot of credit for those two decisions, which were very important decisions for the country for the remainder of the decade, because he paid a huge political price for them.

This is the second of three excerpts from “Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History,” which will be published by Oxford University Press in October. Read the first part here. The third excerpt of the book will appear on Sept. 1.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Russell L. Riley at

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Katy Roberts at