The Passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the U.S. House of Representatives: Presidential Leadership or Presidential Luck?

By Livingston, C. Don; Wink, Kenneth A. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

The Passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the U.S. House of Representatives: Presidential Leadership or Presidential Luck?


Livingston, C. Don, Wink, Kenneth A., Presidential Studies Quarterly


On November 17, 1993, President Clinton was able to take credit for a most unlikely accomplishment when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by a 234 to 200 margin. How could a trade agreement that was vehemently opposed by organized labor, consumer groups, environmentalists, and African-American leaders pass when the presidency and the House were controlled by Democrats? Why did Clinton support NAFTA and is there any evidence that his persuasive abilities were decisive in convincing some House members who were predisposed to oppose NAFTA to change their votes?

There are four hypotheses concerning presidential influence over individual House votes. First, the expectation was that the percentage of the vote won by Clinton in a representative's district would be positively related to a vote for NAFTA. Second, representatives from states in which unemployment was a significant problem would be more likely to fall into the category of a mispredicted supporter of NAFTA; while many may have in fact opposed NAFTA, some should have been influenced by President Clinton's assertion that NAFTA was a jobs bill. Third, the evidence should indicate that Democrats were more successfully persuaded to support NAFTA than were Republicans. Fourth, the expectation was that some of those legislators who were identified by the model as "mispredicted yes voters" would also be identified by journalistic accounts as having been directly lobbied by the administration, thus providing direct evidence of persuasion by the president. We turn to a discussion of how the factors cited above came into play in accounts recorded in the popular media.

The Politics Surrounding the NAFTA Debate

Bill Clinton made the economy the primary issue in his bid for the White House during the 1992 campaign. He and his political strategists sought to hold George Bush's feet to the fire and make him responsible at least in the minds of voters--for what many Americans believed to be an anemic and troubled economy. It was a good strategy to adopt and implement because voters were truly worried about their pocketbooks and so could be affected by what they were hearing and reading about the economy. Moreover, significant numbers of Americans were fearful that they could possibly lose their jobs if things did not begin to improve soon. Candidate Clinton, like most successful campaigners, exacerbated voters' concerns and exploited their fears to his advantage.(1) Indeed, Clinton won the presidency because he was successful in his efforts to focus the voters' attention on the nation's economic woes and to define Bush as an inept leader on the domestic scene.

By making the economy his issue, Clinton had to make some difficult choices during the campaign. One of the most important was how to deal with the North American Free Trade Agreement. Candidate Clinton and his advisers were very much aware of the political fallout that they could expect, especially from traditional Democratic allies, if they decided to endorse the agreement.

If one cannot take politics out of public policy decisions as at least one prominent political scientist suggests,(2) one certainly cannot remove politics from the options that are considered by candidates and their closest advisers during a presidential campaign. Political calculations dictated Clinton's position on NAFTA.(3) James Carville, Clinton's chief strategist, and George Stephanopoulos, a top Clinton adviser, encouraged their candidate to endorse NAFTA in order to neutralize it as an issue. In contrast, David Wilhelm, Clinton's campaign chair, fretted that he would be taking a big political risk and might lose one or even more of the industrial states if he chose to buy into the argument being made by Carville and Stephanopoulos. Clinton, recognizing the legitimacy of both positions, decided to indicate his support for the concept of free trade by conditionally endorsing the agreement that had been negotiated by representatives of his Republican opponent while at the same time voicing serious misgivings about its details in an attempt not to alienate those elements, especially organized labor, that had over the years comprised the core of the Democratic party. …

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