Out of America: Test of wills in the land of the free trade agreement

WASHINGTON - True students of the US should put a ring around the date of 17 November. At first glance, the advice seems misplaced: trade and tariffs, after all, are not the stuff of political heroics, as anyone who has followed the meanderings of Gatt will attest.

But 17 November will be different. That day, the House of Representatives is due to vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). For Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, indeed for the very psyche of the US, it promises to be a defining moment.

Make no mistake, Nafta will be the battle of this Congress. The first phase of the health care debate has ended. A reform plan may or may not be approved before next autumn's mid-term elections; but even if the outcome is failure, Mr Clinton will have been seen to have given it his best shot.

Nafta, which would link Canada, the US and Mexico in the world's largest trading bloc, is another matter. The White House has nailed its colours to the mast; Mr Perot has made Nafta's destruction his political raison d'etre. And if the Texas billionaire prevails, America's crisis of self-belief will have been carved in stone.

Listen to the arguments rage, and you realise that this is less a reasoned discussion of competing facts than a journey into a country's darkest economic fears. For confirmation, you need look no further than a mendacious little volume from Mr Perot that has been driving the debate. Save Your Job, Save Our Country; Why Nafta must be stopped - Now, is its title. It conjures up a vision of 6 million lost jobs and the departure of a third of US manufacturing industry south of the border.

The book is a farrago of conspiracy theories, half-truths and downright lies. Mr Perot has turned Nafta into the American nightmare made flesh: an advanced industrialised economy ruined by unfair Third World competition. A victory for Mr Perot would be a victory for US isolationism.

And so to Mr Clinton. This is a vital moment in his presidency. After the miseries of last spring and early summer, his approval ratings have recovered, according to one poll last week, to an eminently respectable 56 per cent. Yet for all his articulacy and command of detail, he remains an elusive figure. He may grasp an issue, but fails to shape it. His administration preaches American activism and involvement in the world, but its deeds point the other way.

He is liked, but not truly respected. He has yet to teach fractious Congressional Democrats they cannot spurn him with impunity. Nafta offers the chance to wipe the slate clean. If it were voted on tomorrow the measure, almost certainly, would be defeated by opponents within his own party.

But Mr Clinton still has six weeks left, to twist arms and make his case to the country. The prize would be huge, proof at last that beneath the smoothness there is steel. And just maybe, it is starting to happen. Last month, he wheeled out three former presidents, two Republicans and a Democrat, to make the Nafta case. The US Trade Representative's office has temporarily put aside its quarrel with Europe over Gatt to issue a 74-page paper, demolishing point-by-point every bogus assertion of Mr Perot. On Monday Mr Clinton carried his cause into the lion's den of the main trade union organisation, the AFL-CIO.

And something else is working in his favour. If opinion surveys are correct, Mr Perot's strident exhortations are beginning to grate on the national nerve. True, he still scares the wits out of Congressmen of both parties facing re-election next year, terrified that Perot supporters will vote en masse against them if they support Nafta. A few days ago, too, the combined forces of Mr Perot and radio talk-show hosts forced through an arcane, but possibly momentous, change in the House rules, opening hitherto secret Congressional voting lists to public scrutiny.

But Perot's 'negatives' are on the rise too. After so much expenditure of energy and money, Nafta's passage would be a crushing blow. No wonder so much is riding on 17 November, for Mr Perot, for the world's view of America, and for America's view of Mr Clinton.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?