WASHINGTON — The North American Free Trade Agreement vote may be over, but the bloodshed isn't. President Bill Clinton's credibility has been saved, for the second time in six months, but when is he going to build it the old-fashioned way--by proposing legislation the American people want?
The U.S. economy and standard of living is already in trouble, and now we have to enter into a game of three-dimensional, three-nation economic chess. Meanwhile, U.S. politics has a new mega-issue: the frictions of North America, from Mexican sweatshops to Canadian ice floes, and the angst of making three economies into one. If the examples of Europe's bitter 1992 European Community debates and Canada's rejection of its pro-NAFTA government last month mean anything--the acrimony is only getting started.
Mexico is going to be infuriated by the United States, and vice versa. Canada may resolve its confusion by breaking up. Organized labor is a good bet to back a serious challenge to Clinton's 1996 renomination. Ross Perot may not only run again, he may encourage Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader to join together on a fourth ticket to give anti-Establishment voters a second alternative. And Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, leader of the pro-NAFTA Republicans in the House, has just scored a big win for the Old Confederacy by repudiating the party's Lincoln-era commitment to free Northern labor.
It almost didn't happen. If NAFTA had lost on Wednesday in the House, the context would have been different. Clinton would have been badly embarrassed; organized labor would be trying to make things up and bury the hatchet, and anti-NAFTA forces would be reeling under charges of being responsible for worldwide crises in trade and the financial markets. Instead, we have a far different set of forces emerging.
For "North American" issues--relations among the United States, Mexico and Canada--are only now moving onto center stage, rather than exiting left in the wake of congressional NAFTA approval. These issues will get hotter, not cooler, as abstract debates turn into real legal and economic relationships.
Take the European Community as an example. The nations of Western Europe have been shifting from Economic Community to Common Market to something closer still for some 30 years. Only in 1992--as the ring bearers walked to the geopolitical altar--did most of the national electorates realize they didn't actually trust each other. This summer, polls in Britain and Germany showed voters in both nations would have rejected Maastricht referendums if they were held--which the governments didn't dare.
In Canada, the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney--which supported NAFTA and pushed it through Canada's Parliament over the opposition's objection--was wiped out in October's elections. The new prime minister, Jean Chretien, says he wants to renegotiate NAFTA. It's all not even close to ending; in fact, it's only just beginning.
If jobs-worried Europe was dry tinder for one country's economic distrust of another, North America is a box of gasoline-soaked rags. When the European Community decided to (slowly) admit Spain and Portugal, those nations' wages were about half those in France. By contrast, Mexico's current wage levels are only about one-tenth those of the United States. The idea that these two wage streams can be kept from finding a common level is implausible. No great economic power has ever set up a low-wage zone on its own border. We can only wait and see what happens.
But if it is a gamble for U.S. workers, it is also a gamble--a big one--for U.S. politicians. The Clinton Administration is completing a process that began 20 years ago: the Democratic Party's estrangement from the values and concerns of working Americans. In the late 1960s and early '70s, organized labor complained as the Democratic Party moved away from street-corner and American Legion-hall values to flirt with what conservatives labeled "acid, amnesty and abortion." Now the process is being completed as Clinton rejects the AFL-CIO and working-class America to ally himself with multinational corporate and financial interests.
Labor leaders say they'll get even--and they probably will. Of the Democrats elected to the White House since World War II, only John F. Kennedy avoided a renomination challenge. Harry S. Truman was beaten in the 1952 New Hampshire primary, and retired. Lyndon B. Johnson was almost beaten in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, and retired. Jimmy Carter fought off Edward M. Kennedy through the entire 1980 primary season, and then lost in November.