NAFTA Vote Marks a Return To Old-Style Politics in D.C.

THE political drama, public debate, and back-room dealmaking leading to the congressional vote on NAFTA marked a return to quintessential Washington politics. The public and political parties were divided, passion was defused, and there was no ``politically correct'' position to force a vote one way or the other. Hence, the politicians and interest groups did what they get paid to do: The president took to the bully pulpit, the lobbyists took to the hallways, and representatives listened to the arguments from both sides and made their decision based on their local constituencies, their reelection, and the issue's merits for the nation.

NAFTA had nothing to do with the new ``politics of meaning,'' but it had everything to do with the old meaning of politics.

NAFTA represents the new multidimensional issues that confront America. It has domestic (jobs, wages, prices), foreign (immigration, international trade), and global (ecology, human rights) components. The resulting political cleavages do not adhere readily to party or ideological lines; public opinion divided on the issue. The November Gallup National Security Monitor (NSM), a monthly poll of foreign and security issues, showed 41 percent favored NAFTA and the same number opposed it.

Partisanship, which normally predicts where people stand on most issues, was amazingly neutral. Forty percent of the Democrats and 42 percent of the Republicans supported NAFTA. Liberals and conservatives also shared similar attitudes.

With a few exceptions, such as labor and Perot supporters, the debate over NAFTA never generated much passion with the public. An October 1992 survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press found only 13 percent followed it ``very closely.'' Even on the very eve of the vote, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, a mere 19 percent were following the issue ``very closely.'' Underscoring the lack of public passion were the majority, 57 percent, who said that their representative's vote on NAFTA ``won't make much difference'' to them on election day.

This lack of overall pressure - either in numbers, partisanship, or passion - freed many members of Congress to act as independent brokers, making the best deal possible for themselves and their constituencies. The line to court them was long. The public wasn't inflamed, but Washington was.

The president was first in line. Business groups and most of America's elite were closely allied with the president. While many argued that if the president lost on NAFTA he would lose his grip on the presidency, the fact is that engaging in this old style of politics - regardless of the outcome - probably ensures his grip on the office. He has to use the power of the presidency, reach out to the business community, and deal with Republicans to have a chance at winning.

Pulling in the other direction were labor and Perot backers, who focused on jobs as the weak link of NAFTA. The NSM poll indicated that 42 percent of the public found the ``loss of jobs'' a ``very convincing'' argument against NAFTA. No other issue for or against NAFTA gained 25 percent in that category. In the Times Mirror Center poll, the general public placed ``protecting the jobs of American workers'' at the top of their list of foreign policy goals, above even preventing the spread of nuclear weapons! While unsuccessful in stopping NAFTA, labor and the ``Perotistas'' have laid the groundwork for voter backlash should the media focus extensively on the loss of jobs that everyone agrees will happen with NAFTA over the next several years.

While the clear winner is President Clinton, the loser is less distinct. It would be easy to say it is Ross Perot, routed by Vice President Al Gore Jr. in their debate. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed Perot's favorable-unfavorable rating went from a plus-10 before the debate to a minus-six after. Mr. Gore was perceived as doing the better job in the debate by 59 percent to 32 percent for Perot. Gore outscored him to the same extent on the specifics of ``providing facts,'' being ``more believable,'' ``sounding more responsible,'' and ``communicating better.''

Still, Perot managed to outscore Gore on the one issue that may count a year from now - his populism. Forty-nine percent of the respondents said Perot ``looks out for the average American,'' while only 38 percent said this of Gore. Maybe more important, Perot's organization, United We Stand America, gained great political experience in this battle. They became a player in the old political sense: organizing the grass roots and pressuring members of Congress. They got to know representatives' staff members, gaining information that will be invaluable to them in the 1994 mid-term elections.

NAFTA is exemplary of the way many major issues will be decided in the future. Mr. Clinton's partisan advantage in Congress will not translate because today's issues will not be structured so much by partisanship and ideology as by factors that relate to people on the very personal and local level. Public opinion about health care shows this, painting a positive and negative picture. A general consensus exists that the health care system isn't working as it should: It is too costly, too difficult to obtain or sustain, and too neglectful of the particular needs of the people. On the other hand, the public is satisfied with the quality of health care and is reluctant to tamper with the system. Already, as he did with NAFTA, the president is cutting side deals. The stage is being set for another grand Washington drama of old-style politics. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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