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Clinton and Trade

WITH a speech last weekend, Bill Clinton largely removed the North American Free Trade Agreement as an issue in the presidential campaign. Although he attached conditions to his endorsement of the pact lowering trade barriers among the United States, Mexico, and Canada, the Democratic candidate signaled that, like President Bush, he recognizes the importance of robust trade to the long-term prosperity of the US and its neighbors.

Though hedged, Mr. Clinton's support for NAFTA - which was initialed yesterday in San Antonio before Mr. Bush, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney - is welcome. The agreement is too important to be held hostage to partisan politics.

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Clinton showed some starch in backing NAFTA, since organized labor and many environmentalists oppose it. That's not to say he has presented a profile in courage.

Clinton has long been on record in support of free trade. But ever since negotiators from the three countries announced Aug. 12 that they had completed the tough bargaining that had lasted more than a year, the nominee - under pressure from labor, environmentalists, and some Democrats in Congress - has tried to sidestep the issue. Forced at last to take a position on NAFTA by Bush's charge that he was waffling, Clinton swaddled his endorsement in caveats. As president, Clinton says, he would support rati fication of the treaty next year only with adjustments.

Some of the conditions seem redundant. Thanks in part to Democratic kibbitzing, US negotiators won tough guarantees relating to labor standards, the environment, and import surges.

Other Clinton proposals are more worrisome: These include his idea of three monitoring commissions that would impose another bureaucratic and regulatory overlay onto North American trade, and his call for giving private citizens legal rights to enforce labor and environmental provisions of the treaty, which looks like an invitation to endless court-clogging litigation.

Still, if such proposals are the price that Clinton had to pay some of his supporters to keep NAFTA out of the presidential scrum, one can admire his political agility. He wisely resisted aligning himself with such Democratic protectionists as House majority leader Dick Gephardt and some labor officials, whose demands would require reopening negotiations on the agreement. Such backtracking after the long and painstaking NAFTA bargaining would deal a severe blow to the US's relations with its neighbors, e specially Mexico.

Albeit with a wriggle, Clinton has done the right thing on trade.

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