Amplifying the Giant Sucking Sound: Ross Perot and the Media in the NAFTA Negotiations

Article excerpt

No doubt about it: Ross Perot has a gift for the colorful phrase. Throughout his campaign for president in 1992 and in the ensuing years, Perot's folksy expressions have drawn extensive media attention and helped the Texas businessman publicize his political positions.

Prominent among those positions was Perot's 1993 opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he said would devastate the U.S. economy by encouraging American firms to move to Mexico to take advantage of cheap labor. He described the consequent loss of jobs in this country as a "giant sucking sound" of employment and dollars rushing out of the United States and into the coffers of its southern neighbor. The media picked up the phrase - along with many of Perot's other statements about NAFTA - and directed the public's attention to the treaty's potential impact during the ratification debate.

Republican President George Bush completed NAFTA negotiations with Mexico in September 1992 and enthusiastically promoted the treaty during the campaign. Democratic challenger Bill Clinton took only a lukewarm position toward NAFTA, but two days after he was elected president, Clinton came out in favor of NAFTA and went on to promote its approval and ratification.

However, Perot, the third presidential candidate in 1992, made defeating NAFTA a crusade in 1993. Perot used the populist sentiment he had stirred up during the campaign to fight the treaty's approval in Congress, bringing significant domestic pressure to bear on the president's relationship with U.S. trading partners. In fact, Clinton was forced to reopen negotiations to work out side agreements on environment and labor matters before submitting the treaty to Congress in September 1993. In addition, the president offered special deals to some members of Congress whose support he needed to ratify the amendment.

Had Perot not made such an attention-getting fuss about the treaty, it is possible the American public would have paid little heed to the matter and that the Congress would have approved the treaty almost as a matter of course. As it was, the outcome was in doubt almost up to the hour on November 17 when the House approved the treaty on a 234-200 vote. Three days later the Senate approved NAFTA in a less emotional climate and by a 61-38 margin.

This paper examines the effect media coverage of Perot's extreme antipathy to NAFTA had on the ratification of the treaty. Did Perot's gift for the colorful phrase draw the media to publicize his cause? Did the public pressure aroused via the media at the domestic level of negotiations have an impact on the administration's negotiations with its international counterparts?

The ratification process lasted through most of 1993, long enough to allow voters to be aware of the major pros and cons of the treaty, of the vociferous opposition Perot mobilized and led and of their congressional representatives' positions. Without the media's amplification of Perot's opposition to NAFTA, the public might have paid relatively little attention.

Because the public's attention was aroused, however, passage of or opposition to NAFTA became a salient part of the national agenda, apparently making it difficult for elected representatives simply to vote quietly to approve the treaty. Congressional opposition to NAFTA forced Clinton to reopen negotiations with Mexico and to promise federal projects and concessions to some members of Congress in order to get the treaty approved.

Implicit here is the observation that U.S. presidents conduct international negotiations on two levels: with their foreign counterparts and with their domestic constituents, both as represented in the Congress and in terms of direct public reaction and opinion.

Also implicit is the observation that the media in a democracy like the United States play a major role in the formation of public opinion and the way that opinion is brought to bear on the president and the Congress. …