JIMMY CARTER brought President Clinton, George Bush, and Gerald Ford to their feet in applause in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday morning with his strong denunciation of Ross Perot.
The strong language of Mr. Clinton and the three former presidents of two parties is beginning to balance the scales in the debate over free trade with Mexico.
Until this week, the strongest media magnet in the debate has been the maverick businessman and activist from Texas, who has made his primary cause this fall the defeat of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Another facet of the NAFTA debate achieved some balance this week as several of the largest environmental groups endorsed the agreement. Up to this point, environmentalists have been among NAFTA's most vocal opponents.
Still, Mr. Perot loomed like a shadow over the White House ceremony Tuesday for the signing of NAFTA side agreements to deal with labor and environmental disputes that arise under the agreement.
Mr. Carter declared bluntly: ``Unfortunately in our country, now we have a demagogue who has unlimited financial resources and who is extremely careless with the truth, who is preying on the fears and the uncertainties of the American public.''
Mr. Bush's comments were more general: ``Many are taking the cheap and easy way out on this one, appealing to demagoguery and to interests that are very, very special.''
Clinton, in comments after the public event, said of Perot: ``Some of the assertions are not accurate that he has made.''
Perot countered yesterday morning in an NBC interview that Carter ``doesn't understand how the Mexican workers live ... in cardboard shacks, working at US companies at slave-labor wages.'' (Carter helped build several hundred houses for the poor in Tijuana, Mexico.)
THE crux of the debate concerns the issue of whether NAFTA will create or cost American jobs. Perot has projected that NAFTA will result in the loss of 5.9 million United States jobs. The White House estimates that free trade with Mexico has already added 400,000 jobs and will create 200,000 jobs in the first two years of NAFTA.
The logic of the Perot position has powerful appeal on factory floors where jobs feel insecure these days. NAFTA advocates admit that their case is more complex and theoretical-sounding.
At the same time, the perils of protectionism, once vividly linked to the Smoot-Hawley tariff and the deepening of the Great Depression, have faded in memory. Japan, on the other hand, appears to have grown into America's major economic rival while protecting its markets and producers.
At the heart of the argument Perot makes in the new anti-NAFTA book he authored with Pat Choate is the theory that NAFTA would provide more freedom and security for American industry to invest in Mexico, lured by wages one-ninth the American level. The result would be a significant exodus of manufacturing jobs from the US to Mexico.
The free-trade argument counters that high American wages are based on high American productivity. Because of American skills, services, and infrastructure, most American workers can produce far more value than their counterparts in Mexico.
Free-traders concede that inefficient industries will lose jobs to Mexico. But they argue that workers displaced because of free trade with Mexico would be a very small percentage of those displaced because of constant economic change anyway. And a greater number of jobs would be created in selling goods and services to an increasingly prosperous Mexico.