A YEAR ago, the Bush administration reached a preliminary agreement with Mexico and Canada on a pact that would link the three nations and their 360 million citizens in a free trade zone, promising great long-term economic benefits to all the participants. Now, with side agreements concluded, the Clinton administration is sending the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to Congress.
The most important political debate of 1993 - more consequential than anything that will happen this year on health care - is about to be joined.
The trade pact is opposed by some highly vocal interests not normally found together on anything: organized labor; a coalition of liberal activists, including consumer advocates and environmentalists; and H. Ross Perot, who has made opposition to NAFTA a personal crusade.
How formidable this curious mix of opponents will prove depends on how its appeal resonates among the public. Are Americans inclined to back protectionism?
Polls appear to give conflicting answers as to where the United States public stands. It's not that way in either Mexico or Canada, though, where popular opinion seems crystal clear. The Canadian business community overwhelmingly supports the agreement, and much of the country's political elite accepts it as in the national interest. But much of the general public has opposed NAFTA.
Brian Mulroney, who got NAFTA approved by the Canadian parliament before he stepped down as prime minister, didn't help his slumping political fortunes by unswervingly backing free trade with the Colossus of the South.
A Gallup Canada survey taken in early April of this year found 54 percent opposing the agreement and just 37 percent backing it. Only in Quebec Province do supporters outnumber opponents.
In Mexico, too, opinion on NAFTA has been unambiguous, but in this case supportive. Mexicans tell pollsters that they think the US will benefit most from the agreement, and that it will reduce their country's independence. Nonetheless, by margins of roughly 3 to 1 they say that the agreement is good for Mexico and will enhance the country's prosperity. The only political problem for President Carlos Salinas de Gortari would come if the US Congress rejects the pact.
Public opinion on NAFTA seems more uncertain here in the US for one reason: The issue simply has not commanded much attention thus far. In June, for example, 44 percent of those polled by CBS News and the New York Times said they hadn't "read or heard anything" about the plan "to create something called a North American Free Trade zone."
Also in June, a Los Angeles Times survey found 45 percent of respondents saying they hadn't heard enough about the agreement to have an opinion on it.
As far as the American public is concerned, the big story on NAFTA to date is one of inattention.
Still, though most Americans haven't yet focused on NAFTA as such, the underlying perspectives that they bring to the issue, which will determine where they eventually will come down, are evident enough. They worry about job losses and want to see their fellow citizens' jobs protected where possible. But, this aside, all their other impulses incline them to free trade.
The public has said repeatedly that the freer flow of international trade makes sense economically and, on balance, is good for the US. We are loyal to American-made products but want to be able to buy the best product at the best price regardless of where it is made. We think that we can compete in the world and that the problems we have had are due more to our own correctable shortcomings than anything else.
These inclinations of the general public are reinforced by leadership views.
Free trade is favored not only by businesses, but as well by media elites, academics, and the professional stratum generally. In these circles, protectionism seems cranky and antiquated.
All this explains why protectionist appeals have been such nonstarters politically. When Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri made his 1988 presidential run, some expected his "get tough on trade, we're getting killed" approach would win strong backing, especially in the industrial Midwest. In fact, it went nowhere.
Mr. Gephardt's opposition to "NAFTA Plus" (the original pact and the just-negotiated side deals) is unlikely to get anywhere with the public either.
Mr. Perot's anti-NAFTA crusade seems to some politicians and pundits a formidable threat, apparently on the assumption that voters favorably inclined to him in general will heed his call on this issue. But Perot's clout, such as it is, hasn't derived at all from trade matters. It has rested on frustration with governmental malperformance and excess. Perot activists on NAFTA may well be vocal, but they won't be numerous.
President Clinton backs the agreement, but his support so far has been tepid. He can still carry the country, though, if only he will provide real leadership. Americans see free trade as the future, protectionism as a discredited past.