Posted on November 22, 1993 in Washington Watch

Political analysts and leaders in both parties have showered President Clinton with praise for his winning performance in the Congressional vote over the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) last week. There is no doubt that this was a Clinton victory. During the last few weeks before the NAFTA vote, the President met with 150 members of Congress, held 18 mass meetings with business and political leaders and worked the phones non-stop, winning over new supporters for the bill.

The week before the vote, NAFTA was given little chance of passing. Even two days before the final ballot, the count stood at 186 for the agreement and 206 opposed. After a White House dinner meeting with 25 undecided members, a day of last minute phone calls and some creative deal-making, the vote tally switched to 217 for and 197 against. But Clinton kept working and was rewarded when the final vote tally came in 234 for NAFTA and only 200 against.

Throughout the final weeks leading up to the win, Clinton looked remarkably strong and confident. One leading political analyst, who is not always favorably disposed toward the President, said that Clinton was putting on “an awesome display of Presidential leadership.” Another described Clinton as strong and skilled in the art of politics, saying that the President looked more like Lyndon Johnson (one of the most politically skillful presidents in recent memory) than Jimmy Carter (one of the least skilled handlers of the U.S. Congress, and someone to whom Clinton had been compared over the past few months).

And, in what for Clinton must have been the ultimate compliment, one of Washington’s leading political commentators, David Broder, indirectly but favorably compared Clinton’s style to that of John F. Kennedy. Although recognizing the differences between the two men and their times, Broder offered a description of Kennedy and his style of leadership that on many issues matches the portrait of Clinton’s first year in office.

The President’s relentless lobbying and deal-making also won him respect from the Republican leadership in Congress. One reason that the vote count for NAFTA was so much higher than expected was because Republicans were so impressed by the President’s efforts to win Democratic support that they made a determined effort to increase their support for him. This summer Republican leaders had warned that without active a strong public campaign for NAFTA by the President, they would take a politically safer path and vote against the measure themselves. After Clinton’s incredible effort, they honored their word and worked hard to hold as many votes in the pro-NAFTA column as they could.

With the dust now settling from this vote, Clinton and Congress face immediate new challenges, such as a major anti-crime initiative, campaign finance reform and the long-awaited health care bill, which must be analyzed in reference to the new circumstances created by the President’s resounding victory on NAFTA.

1) Clinton’s prestige

The NAFTA victory came at a time when the President needed a win; and clearly, the White House is hoping that success will breed success.

As Clinton left Washington to attend the meetings of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation council (APE), he did so with restored international prestige, as the passage of NAFTA showed that he had the political strength to deliver on his international commitments. Now a partner in what will be the world’s largest trading bloc, the U.S. hand is strengthened for all future trade talks with both Asian countries and the Europeans. And, since the Administration has been arguing for months that trade was one of its highest foreign policy priorities, success in these ventures may take some of the heat off Clinton’s foreign policy team. Any such change would be welcome in a White House that still wants to “focus like a laser” on domestic concerns.

Even in the short term, a stronger and more confident White House has emerged from this battle with not only the President, but also his staff, having enhanced their reputations for political savvy and an ability to win.

2) The New Coalition

The Coalition that won NAFTA will not be long-lived, nor will it, by itself, reshape U.S. politics. But it does point to a few important new political realities that the White House seems to be among the first to understand.

Current domestic and international circumstances cannot be addressed in the framework of traditional Democrat-Republican politics. The issues are too complex for such a neatly bipolar outlook—they require a “new thinking.” Clinton defines himself as a “New Democrat,” willing to take conservative stands on some issues and willing to break with the traditional Democratic coalition.

Over NAFTA, Clinton broke with organized labor and sided with business. To understand the significance of this, one need only know that organized labor is the largest single voting bloc and second-largest source of campaign money in the U.S. And Clinton not only broke with labor in his position on NAFTA, he publicly picked a fight with labor lobbyists much the way George Bush picked his fight with AIPAC over the loan guarantees.

Clinton has taken similar stands on other pending legislation as he seeks to define a new center in American politics. Clinton’s crime bill is tougher than bills passed by Republicans in the past, and Clinton’s welfare reform bill will also win many Republican supporters.

But the President’s health care reform bill package and his opposition to a new conservative deficit-reduction bill will alienate his new-found Republican supporters while winning back his traditional Democratic allies.

This strategy of picking a course first and then finding allies is the pattern emerging from the Clinton White House’s first year’s legislative agenda. Unwilling to simply follow the course of least resistance within the Democratic party, the President begins by defining an issue and taking support where he finds it—even if that means that the majority of his support comes from Republicans (as was the case with NAFTA).

3) Clinton’s move to the Center

Despite its liberal health care reform proposal, the gays in the military issue, and his refusal to cut entitlement spending as conservatives demand, it is clear that the Clinton Administration’s “new Democrat” image is more centrist than previous Democratic Administrations. And, clearly, this is the message the President is sending. He is taking a 43% win in November of 1992 and attempting to build a new but flexible bipartisan coalition in Congress and in the public at large in order to pass the most ambitious legislative agenda in 25 years.

Even Clinton’s blowup at the press in an interview with a large-circulation weekly magazine seems to be part of a well-calculated effort to convey Clinton’s “new Democrat” image. In one of the most broadly quoted lines of his first year in office, Clinton said, “I have fought more damn battles here for more things than any president has in 20 years, with the possible exception of Reagan’s first budget, and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press, and I am sick and tired of it…” Although the passion of the statement may be quite genuine, it is worth remembering that during a bruising primary election in 1992, Clinton lost his temper only once when he knew he was being recorded. Such an emotional statement in a planned interview may be just one more way of delivering the message that he is, indeed, a “new Democrat.”

4) Some problems within the Democratic party

The anger of organized labor is real—as is its political power. They are currently threatening to defeat Democratic members of Congress who supported NAFTA, and leaders of the labor movement have said that President Clinton has “abdicated his role as head of the Democratic party.” Clearly angered by this comment, a leading Democrat responded, “we are not owned by labor.”

There is a clear risk in this confrontation. By alienating his strongest political supporters form 1992, Clinton presents himself with a difficult challenge in 1996, and Democratic members of Congress who supported NAFTA this year will face a probably more difficult burden in 1994 as they seek reelection.

With an angry labor movement, an alienated African American leadership (which is displeased by both the Administration’s anti-crime and welfare bills) and a defiant, though somewhat diminished, Ross Perot all mobilizing against supporters of NAFTA, and Clinton’s shift to the center—the Democratic coalition will face serious electoral tests over the next three years in a divided and weakened state.

5) Clinton’s patterns

One analyst observed that the pattern of Clinton’s first year in office is, “First, take a big issue, make a big speech, get a big boost, fight and win a last minute victory.” He went on to say that this is Clinton’s method because he a president elected by a minority of voters trying to tackle the biggest issues with the biggest stakes, and facing down the biggest opposition coalition of any president in recent history.

But there is another pattern that can also be said to describe the president. He is governing the country as he governed Arkansas. Few now recall the young and idealistic Clinton who was elected in 1978 as the youngest governor in the country. In his first term, he presented dramatic challenges to the state legislature, lost those battles, and then was unable to win reelection in 1980. From 1980 to 1982 he campaigned vigorously across the state, personally meeting with thousands of voters and learning some lessons of Arkansas politics. He won reelection in 1982 and, with his lessons in mind, worked zealously to win each legislator’s vote. His record earned him admiration from fellow Arkansans and fellow governors, and he went on to win reelection four times.

Similarly, after losing the Economic Stimulus package (a rough equivalent of his failed 1980 reelection bid), Clinton went back to the style of governance that had served him so well as Governor. He presents each issue in a speech of glowing and firm principles, but then, as he works Congress to win passage of his proposal, he compromises as needed to secure victory. He is relentless and energetic at personal lobbying, deal-making and compromise—and these three tools have helped him win several victories already this year.

So far, his record is good—a far-reaching deficit reduction bill, a very strong anti-crime bill, and now NAFTA. Whether this style of governance, which is now working so well to win over legislators will and achieving his goals, will help his Congressional supporters in 1994 and his own reelection campaign in 1996 is uncertain.

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