Rarely has that cliche about politics making strange bedfellows been so perfectly illustrated as in the emerging debate over the pending North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Just consider some of the well-known names arrayed against NAFTA. There are ultraliberal Democrats like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and staunch right-wingers like former GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. Then, in a category all their own, there are those two populist gadflies whose ideology is hard to pin down but whose political ambitions are as transparent as ever, former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. and Texas billionaire Ross Perot.
Even some extreme environmental groups have held their political instincts in check long enough to find common ground with organized labor in trying to defeat the historic trade agreement, which would phase out tariffs and other trade barriers between the three North American nations over the next 15 years. The environmentalists, ever-dubious about growth, fear that the pact will exacerbate ecological problems in Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexican border. The unions, who normally like “tree huggers” about as much as they like spotted owls, worry that NAFTA will make it easier for U.S. factories to move south of the border, taking U.S. jobs with them.
But, in all fairness, there could be an equally unusual political alliance formed on the pro-NAFTA side. That became clear this week when there was rare political agreement on tactics between President Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican who has made political life pretty difficult for Clinton ever since he became President. Both men, in separate appearances, suggested that NAFTA’s chances for approval would be improved if it were first taken up by the Senate, which is generally regarded as pro-NAFTA, before going to the House of Representatives, where opinion is much more closely divided. Clinton spoke at the White House, Dole in a Mexico City meeting with Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
Taking NAFTA to the Senate first would be a sound political strategy, and it is one Clinton and Dole should personally sit down to work out as soon as possible in what would surely be an impressive display of bipartisanship. Not only could a NAFTA-strategy summit help heal some of the wounds left over from the last month’s bruisingly--we think needlessly--partisan fight over the federal budget, it would be a public-relations coup for the pro-NAFTA forces. And that could be a terribly important step in getting American public opinion to become more pro-NAFTA.
As fundamentally important as they are for world prosperity, and even peace, trade issues can be drearily dull and hard to explain in understandable terms. That is what makes it so easy for political sophists like Perot and Brown to turn public opinion against NAFTA by playing fast and loose with numbers and soundbites.
By coming together to urge, and plan, NAFTA’s movement through Congress, two erstwhile political opponents like Clinton and Dole could get many Americans to take a closer look at the complexities of NAFTA. A careful and thoughtful debate over NAFTA in the Senate could accomplish the same thing.
When they get more facts about NAFTA, Americans will surely see it for the win-win deal it is for all three countries: allowing them to sell their goods and services more easily to their neighbors, creating many more jobs than are lost, reducing the poverty that causes illegal immigration and creating the wealth Mexico can use to clean up its environment. When Americans understand the benefits that NAFTA can bring this country, they may just be able to prod enough members of the House to vote for it to get it approved. It’s worth a try.