NAFTA position pulls Perot down

Treats this week include NAFTA foe Ross Perot’s newest book, “Save Your Job, Save Our Country,” his latest attack on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

When Perot wants to limit government and reduce the deficit, he wins the support of many Americans — in part because many Americans think government is too big and taxes are too high. But Perot also wins support because his position is consistent with his own no-nonsense, no-frills conduct as a business leader.

Perot’s opposition to NAFTA, however, rings hollow. It is out of character. As my colleague Kent Briggs said of Perot in a recent speech on NAFTA, “Here is a man, a great patriot, whose generation defeated fascism and communism, cowering before Mexico, a country whose economy is less than one-tenth the size of our own.”

Perot’s opposition to NAFTA is certainly at odds with his normal “let’s take ’em on” approach to life and competition.

Perot’s opposition to NAFTA is also at odds with Perot’s signature “big picture” view and savvy understanding of how the world works. As Europe and Asia develop trade blocs, America’s competition is Europe and Japan — not Mexico.

Mexico is an ally. It was either Machievelli or my granddaddy — I can’t remember which one — who said, “Beware of people who can’t tell their friends from their enemies.”

Perot’s opposition to NAFTA is consistent, however, with his increasing tendency to say one things and do another. In the NAFTA case, Perot and his son Ross Perot, Jr. have applied to the U.S. Department of Commerce to establish a foreign trade zone on 9,600 acres of land they own in Ft. Worth, Texas. The foreign trade zone will be a major player in exploding trade between the U.S. and Mexico.

So it’s oppose NAFTA publicly but cash in privately. Or tell the people: “What’s good for Ross Perot is not good for ordinary Americans.” Sounds a lot like a conventional politician.

As the NAFTA debate heats up, Perot is weighing in with a position and an argument that cuts to the core of his strength: his integrity. It undermines his persona, the way people have come to know and understand him. If he is not careful, his “mob-at-the-gate” mentality about foreign trade will be increasingly linked in the public’s mind to allegations of paranoia in other areas — and the people who now support him will conclude he is unfit to lead.

If Perot’s appearance on “The Tonight Show” last Thursday is any indication — that ‘s when that great economist and policy wonk, Jay Leno, tied Perot in knots with questions about his NAFTA opposition, questions Perot couldn’t handle — Perot may come to regret playing politics with NAFTA.

And so should Americans. Last week Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, in a bold and courageous initiative, agreed to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization and to establish the beginnings of a Palestinian state. Peres called the deal, “the Middle East’s ticket to the 21st century.”

Americans need leaders with this kind of vision and courage — because NAFTA is North America’s ticket to the 21st century.

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