Trade Treaty Tussle May Be Pyrrhic Win For the White House

PRESIDENT Clinton has proven himself a savvy, street-wise operator in getting tough bills through Congress.

He took several high-stakes gambles in his come-from-behind victory in the House vote on free trade with Mexico and averted a catastrophe for the credibility of his political leadership. But the very analysts who credit White House political skill in this win predict that it will only make his next, big battles on Capitol Hill tougher.

In the two cliffhanger votes on major Clinton goals - his budget and NAFTA - the winners were members of Congress who held out until the final days and won concessions directly from the president. One lobbyist working against some high-profile spending cuts already finds that he has to request that the president himself call lawmakers to sway them. They will no longer be impressed by the attentions of a mere Cabinet secretary.

This lobbyist's nightmare is that now nearly every House member will remain uncommitted on the health-care legislation until the final moments and demand concessions for parochial interests. ``This president is so weak and has to give so much to gain support that the process of giving so much away itself ensures a weaker presidency,'' says Georgetown University political scientist Stephen Wayne.

Not that Mr. Clinton played his hand wrong. He is widely credited with playing a very weak hand very effectively. NAFTA, after all, was considered a nearly lost cause a few months ago.

POLITICALLY, the most important impact of his win Wednesday was that it avoided a disaster. Had Clinton lost the vote in the House, it would have been expected to badly damage his reputation as a political leader.

In domestic politics, he would have less credibility in persuading reluctant lawmakers to follow him on difficult votes. In international politics, he would have found that his status as a leader who can speak with authority and deliver the support of his own government weakened.

``Victories for presidents on things that are so highly visible ... have a very short life. Defeats last forever,'' says Tom Korologos, a former Reagan aide who now lobbies the Senate. ``They avoided hitting the mountain,'' he adds, ``and they were headed right for it.''

The NAFTA win should help Clinton's public image as a strong leader, which is a weak point for him, but the gains are likely to be modest, agrees George Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A&M University. The issue is not popular enough to swing many voters, and relatively few voters remain undecided on Clinton.

Clinton moves on to his next issues on better terms with Republicans in Congress than with organized labor and some key members of his own party. House minority whip Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, a highly partisan critic of the Clinton presidency, formed a friendly and effective alliance on NAFTA.

The mutual goodwill makes it somewhat easier to move in and out of future alliances by issue, without personal rancor or distrust. Mr. Gingrich, says Democratic consultant Mark Siegel, ``will still be partisan, but he won't be a sewer rat.''

Most observers surmise that labor will patch up its differences with the Clinton administration in coming months, since the White House will be promoting key labor issues, such as a ban on hiring strikebreakers.

Another possible outcome is that Clinton could turn to the right in an attempt to use the bipartisan NAFTA coalition on future issues. ``It suggests there is an alternative model to the model of the last 12 months'' where Clinton relied as much as possible on Democratic support alone, says Jeffrey Eisenach, a Republican organizer. But Clinton would have to swing a great deal in the free-market direction to pick up House GOP support for his health plan, Mr. Eisenach cautions.

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