Mexico's high-powered Washington lobby has been left idling as the Bush administration waffles over how hard to push for prompt negotiation of a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).George Bush is scheduled to meet with Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari this Saturday. They will undoubtedly try to find a time frame that is politically acceptable to both sides. President Bush would prefer to spare the NAFTA from scrutiny as part of the potentially grueling economic policy debates of the 1992 electoral season. Mr. Salinas, on the other hand, wants a quick turnaround on the treaty to show Mexicans that his economic liberalization toward the end of North American integration ha sn't been for naught. Even Salinas's extensive lobbying effort, however, can do little at the moment to negate two factors working against a speedy NAFTA: A revitalization of the GATT Uruguay Round may displace the NAFTA as the US trade priority, and the ailing US economy may give rise to a new mood of protectionism and isolationism. With the nearly simultaneous election of the political pragmatists Salinas and Bush in 1988, relations smoothed between the US and Mexico after strong differences throughout the 1980s over immigration, drugs, and Central America. This enhanced dialogue, dubbed the "Spirit of Houston" after the two leaders' first encounter, led to Salinas's decision to seek the NAFTA. The irony is that while Mexico's image-makers have broadened their appeal within the US, little progress has been made in Mexico to decentralize and democratize its political process, which determines the country's image abroad. Despite Mexico's impressive economic growth, approaching 4 percent of gross domestic product amid a worldwide recession, Salinas has yet to launch substantive political reforms. THE hesitant appointment of the interim governors pending new elections gave credence to allegations that the ruling PRI, in cahoots with the Salinas administration, rigged August gubernatorial elections in the states of Guanajuato and San Luis Potosi. This is the most recent evidence throwing doubt on the seriousness of Salinas's democratization efforts. Political modernization, however, also seems to be hindered by elements beyond Salinas's control, such as the implication last week of high-ranking lea ders of the Mexican military in the shooting deaths of seven Mexican narcotics officers. "Some countries are attempting [both economic and political] reforms at the same time, and they end up with no reform at all, and even graver problems," Salinas told Newsweek in a December 1990 interview. "[We will] respond to the call of Mexicans for improved well-being. It's a matter of the two reforms going on at different rhythms, but the priority is economics." This admission suggests a justification for postponing political democratization until some undisclosed future date. It also emphasizes Salinas's well-earned pride in Mexico's economic reforms. In just three years, he staged a complete turnaround after the "lost decade" of economic stagnation in the 1980s. Tariffs have been lowered, inflation wiped out, and Mexico's immense debt burden has been consolidated. Mexico has learned something that the Reagan and Bush administrations have refused to acknowledge: that real long-term gains (rather than prosperity based on borrowing) can only come from short-term sacrifices. If Bush does not renew promises to pursue the NAFTA vigorously, the US risks losing its decisive role in "locking in" Mexico's economic reforms. Tomorrow's meeting between Bush and Salinas could be an opportune moment to encourage Mexican political reforms. In exchange for a renewed promise by Bush to expedite negotiation of the NAFTA, Salinas could promise to turn his attentions to the social and political facets of his economic modernization. Such a promise would allow Bush to "sell" the NAFTA as a measure to induce stability along the 1,900-mile common border. Even the growing "America First" crowd could not dismiss the benefits of democratiza tion in Mexico. Any NAFTA agreement would still be subject to approval by Congress, which should demand that labor and environmental concerns be addressed. However, if Salinas's personal lobbying for Mexico succeeds this weekend, the Mexican leader may be able to move Bush toward "locking in" a deeper US commitment to the NAFTA. Maybe Salinas will even offer Bush some tips about broader economic restructuring.