- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2001

The Bush administration is waging a concerted campaign to tout the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement, marking the first time in years that an administration has mounted a consistent defense of the often unpopular pact.
But the dispute over opening the U.S. border to Mexican trucks illustrates that the White House has not yet convinced Congress and the public that NAFTA is an unqualified success.
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said yesterday that President Bush may have to wield his veto pen for the first time to kill legislation that would hinder access to U.S. highways for Mexican trucks a key NAFTA requirement.
"I think that it may be his first veto," Mr. Card told NBC news.
The Bush administration's effort has bolstered the spirits of many NAFTA supporters, who believe the Clinton administration after securing NAFTA's passage in 1993 allowed its opponents to systematically chip away at the trade pact's reputation.
"Clearly, the Bush administration's heart is in the right place," said Philip Potter, president of the NAFTA Institute, a group founded in 1998 to tout the agreement's benefits.
The administration's defense of NAFTA will continue today when U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick will deliver a speech to the National Governors Association in Providence, R.I., praising the trade pact as being central to Mr. Bush's free trade agenda.
The administration faces a crucial vote this fall over the passage of legislation that would give it the authority to negotiate new trade agreements and submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote.
Two uses of this "trade promotion authority" will be to negotiate a free-trade deal covering all of North and South America, and to begin a new round of talks with the World Trade Organization when it meets in November.
But the widespread negative public perception of NAFTA hangs like an albatross around the administration's neck, a point Mr. Zoellick acknowledges.
"The American people must know the truth about NAFTA and the benefits of trade if we are going to ask to extend free trade to all of the Americas, persuade Congress to give President Bush trade promotion authority and attempt to launch a new global round this November," Mr. Zoellick said.
Promoting the benefits of NAFTA is also good politics with Hispanic voters, whom Mr. Bush and the Republicans have been aggressively courting since last year's election.
As part of the strategy to improve NAFTA's public image, Mr. Zoellick has brought on Josette Shiner, a former journalist and public relations executive, to fill the newly created slot of associate U.S. trade representative for policy and communications. Ms. Shiner will seek to promote trade pacts such as NAFTA showing that selling free trade is as important as forging trade agreements.
After NAFTA was approved, the Clinton White House largely lost interest in the agreement, because the trade issue divided the Democratic Party. Many of the party's union allies bitterly opposed the deal. In the eyes of many strategists, the battle over NAFTA alienated key Democratic voters and contributed to the Republicans capturing both houses of Congress in the 1994 elections.
"For the politicos, NAFTA was a four-letter word," one former senior Clinton official said.
But the battle over Mexican truck access has demonstrated that this administration's rehabilitation of NAFTA has a long way to go, observers and lobbyists said. Above all, the White House has underestimated the depth of opposition to opening the border to Mexican trucks.
In May, the administration announced it would allow in Mexican big rigs by the end of 2002, something the Clinton administration, citing safety concerns and under union pressure, refused to do.
NAFTA had required the United States to open the border by 1999.
But both the House and the Senate overwhelmingly rejected Mr. Bush's plan last month, putting the first phase of Mr. Bush's strategy to promote NAFTA in deep trouble.
Analysts say the administration failed to recognize how unpopular the trucking issue is with many members of Congress. "Every time this issue has come up [since NAFTA was passed], the strategy has been to avoid a vote, because you knew you were going to lose," Mr. Potter said.
The public generally supports NAFTA, but has serious reservations about its effects, according to Steven Kull, a researcher at the University of Maryland. A May 2000 Gallup poll, for example, found that 47 percent of the public approved of NAFTA, while 39 percent opposed it.
At the same time, Mr. Kull said, the public worries about job losses from free trade with Mexico and about highway safety with the influx of Mexican trucks.

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