When President Clinton's majestic high-stakes gamble on Vice President Gore paid off with a political jackpot, it practically guaranteed a successful House vote next Wednesday. The numbers still look impossible, with only 80 solid Democratic votes and 100 Republicans, about 40 short. But the dynamic set up by Gore's success in demolishing Ross Perot will now work in NAFTA's favor during the few days remaining. The most important thing the President has done is to remove even the shadow of a doubt that he is thoroughly committed to NAFTA and has pulled no punches. If NAFTA goes down, the Republicans will be able to blame Democrats for their pitiful showing, but so what? As long as the President himself bet his political capital on the Gore-Perot debate, a bet he won, he will not suffer any loss in the minds of the American people, especially among the opinion leaders in the business community. In fact, the ball is now in the court of the Republican Party, which has not yet made an equivalent political gamble. As Paul Gigot makes clear in his Wall Street Journal column this morning, the GOP leadership is throwing off signals that it is hedging its bets , putting less than total effort into NAFTA. This is entirely due to the GOP strategy of holding back delivery of 120 votes until the Democrats nail down 100.
The strategy made sense up to a point, but now seems feeble, compared to the commitment by the President. It makes more sense for the GOP to go all out for 130 votes or more, leaving nothing on the table. The politically active business people from whom we've heard since the debate are angry at Republicans, not Democrats. Richard Gilder, president of the well-heeled Political Club for Growth in New York City, a major source of funding for House and Senate candidates across the country, tells us that no candidate who votes against NAFTA can expect a dime from the club in '94 or '96, and requests from pro-NAFTA Democrats will get serious consideration. That's how big this vote is. Republicans are going to be feeling this kind of pressure during the weekend, I think, which will lead to a more aggressive strategy in the last two days before the Wednesday evening vote. The more aggressive strategy, in turn, will put increased pressure on the White House. The tobacco state Democrats have offered to deliver six to ten votes for NAFTA in exchange for a deep cut in the President's plans for a 75-cent tax on cigarettes for financing Hillary's health care scheme. The President has flatly ruled out such a deal, with the First Lady at his elbow.
If NAFTA loses by less than six votes, business and political opinion will blame Hillary, which in turn will make the President himself the loser. As nobody in Washington believes there is the slightest chance Congress would approve a 75-cent cigarette tax anyway, a NAFTA defeat would be hung around the neck of a henpecked President. If Republicans work hard enough to get that close, the President will have no choice but to somehow get the rest. This is a test of the leadership of House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich. It's also a test of the leadership of Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, who has to be seen as risking his political capital as the party leader in the House vote. It is not enough for Dole to play it safe, as everyone knows the action is in the House, not the Senate. If Dole goes flat out, he'd win no matter how NAFTA fares. He's the man on the margin.
Though some Republicans would just as soon see Clinton stew in his own juices, NAFTA is as big a vote for Republicans as it is for Democrats. If NAFTA passes, Perot's political career, for all practical purposes, is over, along with his potential as a threat to siphon off GOP votes in 1996. The label of the party as the "masters of gridlock" will also be erased since the GOP will be delivering the majority of the votes. Republican support for a ratified NAFTA will help draw Hispanic voters, an important and growing constituency, to the party. Finally, unified and vocal GOP enthusiasm for the agreement will allow the party to marginalize, once and for all, the likes of protectionist Pat Buchanan. If NAFTA passes with overwhelming Republican support, the party will be identified positively with free trade and economic dynamism for the next generation.
ED ROLLINS, BLABBERMOUTH
In 1992, I hitched a ride on the Forbes "Capitalist Tool" Boeing jet to the Houston GOP convention. I sat next to Christine Todd Whitman, who was already running for Governor of New Jersey, and advised her that Ed Rollins, whom she had retained as campaign manager and chief strategist, would be a millstone around her neck. As campaign mgr., Rollins had been a millstone around the neck of Jack Kemp, when he ran for President in 1988. And as campaign mgr., he personally destroyed the Perot presidential campaign from inside, a few months before I had that chat with Christie. I told her then that Rollins's problem is that he is a pathological windbag , who never really got anybody elected to anything, but who believes his own press clippings. These advise that he is a guru, the greatest political strategist available to Republicans -- based on the one fact that he managed to get Ronald Reagan re-elected in 1984 when the U.S. economy was enjoying its biggest boom since the Coolidge years.
Rollins has now shot off his mouth for the last time as guru. As you may all know by now, after Christie finally eked out a narrow victory over a dead man named Jim Florio, the blabbermouth hosted a breakfast of Washington political reporters to tell how he'd done it. He had cleverly scattered $500,000 in bribes to the spiritual leaders of the African-American community in New Jersey, he said, paying these black ministers to refrain from urging their flocks to vote for the aforesaid Florio. Because this is clearly an immoral, if not illegal, act, it is preposterous to think that men of God en masse would respond positively to such an offer if it were made. It is preposterous to think Christie would approve of it if it were even suggested. If made en masse it is incredible to imagine that not one minister would step forward to squawk. It has been common practice of Democratic campaigns to make contributions to black churches that urge their parishioners to get out and vote, having endorsed their candidate. This is bad enough, but to buy a minister to damage the campaign of a candidate he has endorsed is repulsive. Republicans have never played that game before, and I believe Rollins did what he said he did, locating preachers who have been corrupted by the whole process.
Unhappily, Christie Whitman will now have Rollins wrapped around her like sackcloth and ashes throughout her administration. So will the Republican Party from coast to coast, and in Alaska and Hawaii too. In The New York Times today, Jack Kemp blundered by equivocating when asked if he would still hire Rollins should he run again in '96. For some reason, Kemp could not keep his mouth shut. Roger Stone, a competing GOP strategist who also warned Christie Whitman against Rollins, was more accurate in characterizing Rollins as "radioactive." GOP attempts to crack open the black vote, which is the only way Republicans will ever be able to control the House of Representatives, have suffered a terrible setback. If leading GOP political gurus think black spiritual leaders are open to mass bribery, what must they think of ordinary black folks? Democrats are, of course, no better. The hypocrisy of Democrats who have been buying black votes for decades will soon be apparent, and the practice will hopefully end once and for all.
As penance, Christie Whitman will have to work twice as hard to represent the black community in New Jersey, and that may be the silver lining in this dark cloud. White political leaders should have to work twice as hard to represent the black community, because black Americans have been treated so shabbily by the white leaders of both political parties for as long as we can remember. There is only the Democratic liberal plantation and the Republican conservative plantation, each viewing the black community as a permanent underclass that has to be taken care of. I'm actually delighted that this happened, in exactly this way, to lay out these issues before the whole country. It's happened at precisely the right time, when race relations have been rubbed raw and black frustration with the white political class has reached profound depths. Is the President chortling over the GOP embarrassment? Does he have the faintest clue that there is hardly a black adult in the nation who trusts him -- after the way he treated Jesse Jackson last year, playing his Arkansas race card over Sister Souljah, then following up this year with his cynical abandonment of Lani Guinier?
Maybe it takes a gasbag blabbermouth to get it all out into the open, where American citizens, black and white, can finally look each other in the eye and talk it through. There's a lot to talk about and the sooner it's done, the better.