APPROVAL of the North American Free Trade Agreement by the House of Representatives came only after an extraordinary political struggle. It is of signal importance, and America must recognize its strengths and exercise its international responsibilities with self-confidence and determination.
For all its faults, the United States of America has stood throughout its entire existence as a symbol of hope and progressive social change. Now, with the world moving to greater openness and integration, it would be unthinkable for us to turn back to a clearly discredited protectionist past.
In the aftermath of the House vote, we need to pause and assess what happened. NAFTA's success was far too close a thing. Foreign policy leadership all across the spectrum agreed that approving NAFTA was essential to constructive American leadership. Economic analysts of virtually all persuasions saw it to be consonant with the national interest. NAFTA was negotiated and signed by a Republican president and ener- getically backed by the new Democratic president. Yet it still required an all-out push in the closing days to carry.
The common wisdom seems to be that the agreement nearly failed because ``ordinary Americans,'' whose jobs were on the line, rose up against ``elites'' whose comfortable status gave them the luxury of preaching NAFTA's virtues. Many workers were plainly worried, but otherwise this explanation entirely misses the point.
The best available data for international comparison, from the Organization for International Cooperation and Development (OECD), show that the US today has the highest real income in the world and has maintained a large lead on its closest competitors. Our rate of job creation since 1980 has far exceeded that of any other advanced industrial nation. The evidence is clear that no informed American should want for a moment to swap his country's economic position for that of any other.
Nonetheless, Americans have been told incessantly that their economy is in deep trouble and is about to be overwhelmed by Japan's. This gross misrepresentation has several different sources, including at times the interest of the ``outs'' in making the case that the policies of those in power have failed, and a media world where Cassandra seems constantly in vogue.
This has taken its toll: Many people, without ready means of assessing a global economy, have been made unnecessarily fearful.
On top of this, the US once again has been passing through a vast economic transformation which, like its predecessors, has carried with it hardship as well as gain. Consider the first great economic shift, which saw the American work force shift en masse from farms and the countryside to factories and cities. In retrospect it seems both inevitable and, overall, beneficial, but it brought hardships to many.
Today's transformations won't be stopped or ameliorated by turning from free trade to protectionism; quite the opposite. But too many Americans haven't been shown clearly why this is so. This failure, too, has its price.
Ross Perot, who has made a public career out of proffering simplistic answers to complicated problems, and who has repeatedly proved himself willing to bend the truth until it breaks, saw an opening in this environment and charged in. He was aided enormously by the fact that in the last two years he had been allowed to parade, rarely challenged, as a disinterested billionaire seeking only the public weal.
When he was savaging George Bush in last year's campaign, many Democrats, while not comfortable with Perotism, held back from criticizing its manifest deficiencies. Hoping to win the votes of some of Mr. Perot's admirers, Bush strategists for most of the campaign chose not to confront him forcefully. Perot has for long stretches received a free ride from the press. However outrageously simplistic, the Texan was always good copy. Larry King gave Perot a forum again and again, and until the exchange with Vice President Al Gore Jr. 10 days ago, gave it to him without any critical scrutiny.
In short, a great many people have played short-term games that contributed to Perot's elevation. Mr. Gore's rebuttal of Perot on the King program deserves the praise it has received. But Perot appears so manifestly uncomfortable with democratic politics, his warnings so exaggerated, his disregard for facts so extreme, that it's shameful he so long avoided refutation.
Perot has extracted an awful price on the issue. The Mexican people, long harboring resentment of their powerful northern neighbor, sometimes with good reason, heard a prominent American repeatedly disparage them in a most prominent forum.
Perot said: ``When you look at the Mexican worker ... you know what his dream is? To someday have an outhouse.''
Or, as he said repeatedly of Mexicans who have worked hard to achieve the highest per capita income in Latin America: ``People who don't make any money can't buy anything.''
Long after the trade agreement has faded from debate, some young Mexican men and women will, I fear, remember Ross Perot's taunts and insults. He doesn't speak for America, but we gave him the capacity for this mischief.