A YEAR ago, the Bush administration reached a preliminary
agreement with Mexico and Canada on a pact that would link the
three nations and their 360 million citizens in a free trade zone,
promising great long-term economic benefits to all the
participants. Now, with side agreements concluded, the Clinton
administration is sending the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA) to Congress.
The most important political debate of 1993 - more consequential
than anything that will happen this year on health care - is about
to be joined.
The trade pact is opposed by some highly vocal interests not
normally found together on anything: organized labor; a coalition
of liberal activists, including consumer advocates and
environmentalists; and H. Ross Perot, who has made opposition to
NAFTA a personal crusade.
How formidable this curious mix of opponents will prove depends
on how its appeal resonates among the public. Are Americans
inclined to back protectionism?
Polls appear to give conflicting answers as to where the United
States public stands. It's not that way in either Mexico or Canada,
though, where popular opinion seems crystal clear. The Canadian
business community overwhelmingly supports the agreement, and much
of the country's political elite accepts it as in the national
interest. But much of the general public has opposed NAFTA.
Brian Mulroney, who got NAFTA approved by the Canadian
parliament before he stepped down as prime minister, didn't help
his slumping political fortunes by unswervingly backing free trade
with the Colossus of the South.
A Gallup Canada survey taken in early April of this year found
54 percent opposing the agreement and just 37 percent backing it.
Only in Quebec Province do supporters outnumber opponents.
In Mexico, too, opinion on NAFTA has been unambiguous, but in
this case supportive. Mexicans tell pollsters that they think the
US will benefit most from the agreement, and that it will reduce
their country's independence. Nonetheless, by margins of roughly 3
to 1 they say that the agreement is good for Mexico and will
enhance the country's prosperity. The only political problem for
President Carlos Salinas de Gortari would come if the US Congress
rejects the pact.
Public opinion on NAFTA seems more uncertain here in the US for
one reason: The issue simply has not commanded much attention thus
far. In June, for example, 44 percent of those polled by CBS News
and the New York Times said they hadn't "read or heard anything"
about the plan "to create something called a North American Free
Trade zone. …