1. Archive

Fast track may prove costly for Clinton

For President Clinton, the big trade vote scheduled later this week represents "Double Jeopardy."

If Clinton fails to win the same "fast track" negotiating authority that previous presidents have carried into international bargaining, it would threaten a central part of his overall economic policy and rattle already jumpy world stock markets. It would signal retreat by the United States from its leadership role for a more open international marketplace and _ by the sober judgment of the embassies of at least two key allies _ could set off serious trade wars.

Chances are, it won't come to that. The Senate, which is scheduled to vote first, seems likely to approve the fast track procedure in which trade agreements are voted up or down by Congress but are not subject to amendment. In the House, which is slated to follow on Friday, Clinton faces an uphill struggle, but one he might still win.

But the cost of victory may be high. By every calculation, more than two-thirds of the affirmative votes will have to come from Republicans. The more Clinton has to turn to Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and his allies, the higher the price they can extract on other issues. Gingrich, still trying to shore up his own shaky position after last summer's failed coup, simply cannot afford to be altruistic.

The reason Clinton may have to pay a high price is that he has signally failed to persuade his own party of the rightness of his trade policy. In 1993, after a vigorous campaign by Clinton, only 40 percent of House Democrats supported NAFTA _ the free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. "On fast track, he will lose 20 or more people who voted for NAFTA," House Democratic Whip David Bonior of Michigan, an ardent opponent, told me over the weekend. A key House Democratic supporter conceded that Clinton is unlikely to get many more than 30 percent of the 206 Democrats to go along, a figure low enough to prove fatal.

Clinton aides blame the problem on organized labor, which has led the fight against "fast track," as it did against NAFTA. "This is the most blatant example of the corrupting effect of campaign finances on Washington policymaking I know," one administration official said.

Even if you accept AFL-CIO lobbyist Peggy Taylor's assurance that "we have not threatened to cut off contributions to anyone," there is no doubt the dependence of most congressional Democrats on unions for their bedrock financing makes them receptive to the arguments Taylor and other labor lobbyists offer.

But there's more than money involved. In the 1994 midterm election, a year after the NAFTA vote, union activists, stung by losing that fight to Clinton and by the president's failure to get a Democratic Congress even to vote on his promised health care reform, deserted their posts. Phone banks went unmanned; the turnout of union families plummeted; 40 percent of those who bothered to vote backed GOP candidates, and the Democrats lost the House for the first time in 40 years.

In 1996, by contrast, labor, under new leadership, targeted Gingrich and the GOP early, boosted its share of the electorate and helped the Democrats to a 10-seat gain. Understandably, its arguments are heeded.

Labor is less monolithic than it appears, however. The growing unions _ notably those representing public employees and service industries _ care much less about trade than do the Teamsters or the big industrial unions. Vice President Al Gore, despite his pro-NAFTA and pro-fast track stance, has at least as many allies among top unionists as his prospective opponent for the 2000 nomination, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who is leading the fight for labor. What Clinton and the White House have been slow to realize is that Gephardt has persuaded many of his colleagues that demanding stronger worker and environmental protections as part of future trade agreements will help their constituentsk, not undercut a successful Clinton economic policy. Until very recently, the president let the opposition dominate the public debate.

As a result, Clinton will not get the votes of such thoughtful Democrats as Rep. Ron Kind, a moderate freshman from a marginal district in Wisconsin, who concedes he is adopting the "parochial concern" of dairy farmers frustrated by their post-NAFTA dealings with Canada. "Very few of us oppose giving the president the authority to negotiate," he said, "but he should have elevated this to a national debate on what the rules of trade should look like in the 21st century. That is what Ronald Reagan would have done."

As a result of that failure, Clinton will pay Gingrich a high price if he is to avoid a truly devastating defeat.

Washington Post Writers Group