Economics Outside the Beltway

As Vice President Albert Gore and H. Ross Perot warm up for their big slugfest over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on "Larry King Live" tonight, it seems an opportune moment to consider the strange political path this starcross'd treaty has taken.

It was only a short while ago that the U.S. was cooing over Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's overture for the agreement. Mexico had been better known for experiments with import-substitution and "Yanqui Go Home!" than for a belief in comparative advantage and free trade. The idea that American ideals were finally winning adherents south of the border was gratifying and flattering.

This victory for free trade was so sweet that we forgot to ask if we still believed in the ideology ourselves.

Former President George Bush thought we did. He rushed to sign NAFTA before the Republican Convention. Bush saw the treaty as a silver bullet--a foreign policy coup which demonstrated his concern for the American economy.

NAFTA was a silver bullet all right, but it was heading straight toward Bush.


His opponents in the 1992 contest, less isolated from "real" America, recognized that the ideology of free trade was losing its appeal. Ross Perot won over Reagan and McGovern Democrats alike with his stalwart opposition to the "giant sucking sound." Bill Clinton couldn't be so negative because of his heavy dependence on corporate dollars for the campaign, but he waffled enough to avoid any major damage with the voters.

Bush took it in the teeth on NAFTA and now gets to practice his angling every morning. Perot, the real "comeback kid" of 1992, continues to lead the anti-NAFTA irregular brigade.

And poor Clinton, who would really rather have this issue just go away, finds that Congress' upcoming vote on the treaty has been turned into yet another referendum on his Presidency (how many referenda do we need before we can agree that the verdict is thumbs-down?).

Clinton knows the general mood of the country is anti-NAFTA. He knows this well; his whole campaign was based on exploiting fears of economic decline. Indeed, Clinton has tried to spin his support for NAFTA as a protectionist counter to the Japanese menace.

But in a televised war of sound-bites and spin, Perot has more than enough ammo to take on the whole administration single-handedly. Clinton's "NAFTA we HAFTA" baseball cap just can't compete with Perot's ten-gallon polemics.

And though the media loves to criticize Perot, they love talking to the sparky little fella even more. He raises ratings.

Which brings us to the Gore-Perot mano a mano. Perot is right; the President's challenge is a desperate gamble. The Texan, who smacks his lips at the very thought of red meat, accepted with relish. Meanwhile, the Harvard-educated Gore is hitting the books.

The political logic of the Clinton team is tortuous. They hope that the debate will make more people associate opposition to NAFTA with support for Perot. They further hope that Perot will discredit himself by arriving ill-prepared to debate the issue. Therefore, since Perot will lose, NAFTA will win. Q.E.D., and four more years!

Of course, this logic crumbles if Perot actually wins the debate. Poor preparation didn't prevent Perot from creaming the wonked-out Clinton and Bush in their debates last year. With two cute phrases--"I'm all ears" and the NAFTA-related "giant sucking sound"--Perot came back from the dead as a serious contender for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

But the logic crumbles even if Perot doesn't win. The President knows the public opposes NAFTA, but he thinks he can fool people into thinking this is a beauty pageant. That is incorrect. Stopping Perot will not stop the wave he's riding.

The basic fact is that the public has lost faith in free trade. Opposition to NAFTA is just part of a broader shift in attitudes. The political future belongs not to the multilateralists but to the nativists, to the Pat Buchanans, the Richard Gephardts, and, yes, the Ross Perots.

Perhaps the public's protectionism is the result of false consciousness. We all learned in Ec 10 that free trade is good. But in American politics, the majority is always right, whether or not Martin Feldstein agrees. No prepared one-line zingers, no talking heads on cable TV, can alter that.

Although it seems unlikely at the moment, Congress may end up voting for NAFTA. Clinton may be able to find enough bacon in government warehouses to grease NAFTA'S passage. But many of those members of Congress who vote for NAFTA against the will of their districts won't be members of Congress much longer.

Watch the debate tonight. It might be interesting. It should be fun. It could be a defining moment for the political careers of Gore and Perot. Maybe Larry King will show up in a jacket and tie.

But understand that the real debate, the one that happened around the kitchen table, was settled long ago. And understand that NAFTA lost.