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In Vote, Clinton Wins a Laurel for His Legacy


WASHINGTON — As his White House years were ending, Woodrow Wilson's presidential legacy was sealed with the failure of his visionary proposal to place the United States in the League of Nations.

President Clinton's success in gaining House approval of his China trade legislation, while not on a par with Wilson's campaign, spares him a similar fate.

With Wednesday's vote, he has stepped neatly over a yawning trap in the final course of his presidency. Had he failed, the rest of his term would have been tarred, along with his self-sought legacy as a free-trading New Democrat.

At key turning points in his presidency, Clinton has looked to Republicans for crucial support: In passing the balanced budget plan, in reforming the nation's welfare system, in approving the North American Free Trade Agreement and now in taking a large step toward redefining U.S. relations with China.

Each time, he had to go against the grain of his core Democratic constituency.

As it happens, he has created a symmetry to a presidency that began by plunging into, and then reconciling, the rancorous debate over free trade with Mexico and Canada.

The cost of defeat for the China trade deal could have been felt within days: On Monday, the president begins a weeklong trip that includes meetings of the European Union and a visit to Moscow for conversations with Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin.

Given the resentment toward Washington stemming from what is often seen as a U.S. penchant for unilateral action, failure to take steps toward more open trade would have made foreign seas that much rougher for the president.

"Had he failed, it would have been devastating," said Thomas Mann, a scholar of the presidency at the Brookings Institution.

White House Stressed Security, Economics

Daily during the debate that preceded Wednesday's showdown, the White House emphasized the stakes, linking the foreign policy and national security aspects of the vote with the opening of a potentially gigantic market, a centerpiece of the president's trade-based international economic policies for eight years.

"Opening markets abroad is a key part of his economic strategy," said Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary. "I think this is one of the most important votes on that front that's been taken."

Reflecting the extent of the president's effort, White House aides said, Clinton had met with at least 100 House members in recent weeks, including at least two dozen private, one-on-one sessions. By rough estimate, about two-thirds of the lobbied representatives voted with the White House.

But perhaps the most crucial such meeting was May 2 in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House residence, when Martin Lee, the leading Hong Kong democrat, joined a small group of House members and administration officials, said James B. Steinberg, the White House deputy national security advisor.

"It was very compelling," Steinberg said of the meeting with the undecided House members.

Lee focused on the positive impact greater trade would have on democracy in China. "He has undeniable credibility. He came up here and said: 'I can't get this done. You are the only ones who can do it. If you don't do it, nothing will work.' That was very powerful. That made it clear that this was a strategic issue, not simply a trade deal."

Veterans, Not Policy Gurus, Led Campaign

Another White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that equally crucial was a decision made Jan. 10 to place the overall campaign in the hands of White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, a veteran of legislative campaigns, and Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, who was the president's point man in gaining approval of NAFTA.

That decision took the nitty-gritty political work out of the realm of the policy gurus who are more familiar with the substantive elements of China policy. They included national security advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, and Gene Sperling, head of the National Economic Council.

A third key element, officials said, was the effort to make sure Beijing, out of naivete or arrogance, did nothing to so annoy House members on the cusp of a decision that the vote suddenly turned sour.

And there were opportunities for missteps, as recently as the elections in Taiwan on March 18 and the May 8 anniversary of last year's North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing by an American warplane of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Balkan war.

In the end, the fight went to the heart of a crucial element on which Clinton campaigned eight years ago: the ever-greater reliance the United States must put on competing in the global marketplace--regardless of the long-standing opposition of powerful interests.

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