Clinton's Waterloo?

Bill Clinton lost a lot more than fast-track trade negotiating authority last week. He lost his grip - which had been steadily weakening - on his own party.

President Clinton has long seen himself as leading the Democratic Party toward rebirth as "New Democrats" - advocates of smaller government, vigorous federalism, and economic growth. In theory at least, these new themes blend with the Democrats' traditional concern for the "little guy."

But many congressional Democrats, comfortable with the party's liberal image, never really bought the theory. That lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Clinton's centrist politics mounted to open rebellion as the president worked the phones and twisted arms on an issue that has often marked the line between new and old Democrats: free trade.

Clinton, rightly, sees unfettered trade as an economic engine. His party's leadership in the House, particularly, sees it more as a sellout to overseas producers who take manufacturing jobs away from Americans.

That view is shared, emphatically, by the Democrats' chief ally and funding source: the politically effective 14 percent of US labor that is unionized. Union bosses perceive free trade in terms of Ross Perot's "giant sucking sound," with jobs streaming to cheap foreign labor markets.

AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and other unionists mustered their troops early to defeat fast-track authority, which would have given Clinton power to cut trade deals free of muddying amendments by Congress. The president, by contrast, was late on the field. His fall offensive to pass fast track never really got off the defensive.

Clinton's eleventh-hour optimism about getting the now shelved legislation back on track next year may not mesh with reality. The 1998 congressional elections will be an overriding preoccupation, and the Democratic majority won't easily retreat from an anti-trade position they believe to be politically advantageous.

House minority leader Dick Gephardt is all smiles at this outcome. But have his prospects, and those of like-minded Democrats, improved enough to turn the conservative tide of recent years? Finding the answer to that question will make the next 12 months unusually interesting.

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