A Look at Lineup on NAFTA A Large Number of 'Not Sures' among Americans Will Be the Prize in the Debate over the Trade Agreement

Article excerpt

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. …


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