President raises stakes on trade

The North American Free Trade Agreement debate took a sharp turn last week. For the first time, pro-NAFTA forces are on the offensive and gaining momentum.

The primary difference is the President, who has come out four-square for NAFTA. He blasted his friends in the labor movement for strong-arm tactics, which include muscling Democrat members of Congress to oppose the agreement or face labor-supported opponents to their re-election. He chastised the meekness of “free riders” in the business community, with thinly-disguised contempt for their failure to gin up grassroots support for NAFTA.

Until last week, the President’s efforts on behalf of NAFTA were unfocused. Many questioned the depth of his convictions and his willingness to stay the course. No more. Besides, the President added a new twist by linking NAFTA to the national interest.

First, the President reaffirmed his view that NAFTA will help create good jobs at good wages in the US, spur economic growth in all three countries, help clean up the environment — especially along the US-Mexico border, and provide a magnet to bring US jobs now in Asia back to North America.

At the same time he elevated the pro-NAFTA argument, emphasizing that NAFTA will provide a strong foundation for North Americans to wield more influence in global economic forums — including the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. With the GATT trade expansion talks coming to a conclusion, a “yes” on NAFTA by Congress will promote our national interest by making clear to Japan and the Europeans that they must open up their markets or risk losing access to the world’s largest and richest market in North America.

A “yes” on NAFTA — just one day before the leaders of major Pacific Rim trading partners meet in Seattle for the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Council — will clearly demonstrate that the US is engaged and committed to an expansion of the free trade regime that is primarily responsible for the rapid increase in world living standards since the end of WW II.

And a “yes” on NAFTA, the President said, will provide a building bloc for the US, Canada and Mexico to forge closer economic ties among the more than 700 million people in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, nearly every leader in South America has expressed strong support for NAFTA. Reason: NAFTA provides a framework that will permit the nations of Central and South America to get along with the Colossus of the North.

Most importantly, the President, who is asking members of Congress to cast a tough vote, laid his own prestige on the line by agreeing to let Vice President Al Gore debate Ross Perot, the self-appointed leader of the nation’s NAFTA nay-sayers. Result: An aggressive and well-prepared Al Gore held his own as a churlish Ross Perot imploded with shop-worn words and phrases, economic nonsense and political red herrings.

NAFTA is another of those historic votes — like the Louisiana Purchase, the Alaska Purchase, Lend Lease, the Marshall Plan, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — where a “yes” vote will generate enormous benefits for the US. Fortunately for the nation, the President’s struggle against special interests now appears to be winning.

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