President Clinton appears to be fiddling on free-trade expansion while he concentrates on educating the public about greenhouse gases.
The two subjects are actually interlinked. Mr. Clinton ought to use his pulpit to show the linkage, not hide it.
The president hinted this summer that he would support a deal to roll back production of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases widely expected to accelerate global warming. But he would do so only if developing nations are required to meet the same standards as developed nations. He also hinted that any deal at a Tokyo climate summit in December would have to allow a nation to fulfill its gas reduction quota even if some firms fail the exhaust pipe test - as long as their net total emissions cuts pass muster.
What Mr. Clinton has since set about doing is persuading the public that there is sufficient scientific evidence to warrant getting serious about cutting emissions. Hence his hosting of a group of Nobel laureates specializing in climate last month. Hence his Willard Scott-ization of the issue Oct. 1, when he invited media weather men and women to the White House to weave a little CO2 into their broadcast dramas of isobars and Doppler radar.
But what does global warming have to do with global trade?
Just this. Clinton needs to persuade more Democrats to join Republicans in Congress if he is to win "fast track" authority to extend NAFTA trade expansion to Chile and beyond. But a majority of Democrats, beholden to organized labor and led by House minority leader Dick Gephardt, are balking. They want the president to attach instructions that trade deals include rules governing labor conditions and pay, and the environmental impact of export-goods factories.
Speaker Newt Gingrich says Clinton has yielded too much to labor's attack. He's right. Trade expansion should be treated separately from environment and labor questions.
Mr. Clinton shouldn't be softpedaling his position that developing nations meet the same environment standards as industrialized nations. If he's going to take that stand in Tokyo in December, he ought to use it now to assure fellow Democrats that environment matters will be treated separately from trade. He also ought to argue more forcefully that the US can't micro-manage wage levels in other nations. Costs of living are too different. Further, it's in the interest of each nation to improve factory conditions for its own worker/voters.
In the past half century freer trade has vastly raised living standards in the US and the world. This is no time to call a halt for the wrong reasons.