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Why Trudeau doesn’t need Obama (or any future U.S. president)

There will be political deadlock in the U.S., no matter the outcome of its presidential election. It’s an opportunity for Canada to turn to civil society to build
a collaborative North America.

By: /
22 February, 2016
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump stands at the edge of the stage during a break at the Republican U.S. presidential candidates debate on Feb. 13, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
By: Stephen Blank

 Senior fellow, University of Ottawa 

Does it matter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who the next U.S. president will be?  Not really. It’s difficult, nearly impossible, to imagine a scenario in which Washington isn’t deadlocked, with legislators up to their ears in internecine conflicts. Canada will be far from anyone’s mind.

This is not a bad thing. Canada-U.S. relations are often better when U.S. leaders don’t think much about Canada. Yes, Americans take Canada for granted. But for the most part, Americans think Canadians are good guys. Our best friends.  

This situation – deadlock in Washington and Americans’ positive views of Canada – may well provide Trudeau with a real leadership opportunity in dealing with the U.S. and North America.

But first, on the U.S. election.

Messy outcomes on deck

The default forecast is still Hillary wins – and then faces an even more conservative House of Representatives. (The Senate in this view is up for grabs – depending on how long Hillary’s coattails are.)

How likely is this?

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has done much better than anyone anticipated. But he has a long haul to win the nomination. One thing for sure: Thomas Piketty’s analysis in Le Monde on Feb. 14 is dead wrong: “Sanders’ success today shows that much of America is tired of rising inequality and these so-called political changes, and intends to revive both a progressive agenda and the American tradition of egalitarianism.”  

Sanders has scored well among bright, young college students and traditional left types. But this is scarcely “much of America.” The problem is that these young people are not strong voters. So far, that has not changed in this election. The question for Bernie is not rousing college kids but stealing away the moderates and ethnic voters who are the mainstream of Democratic voters. Not impossible, but not a slam dunk.

The Republican side is truly crazy. Trump continues to lead national polls. But his support among Republicans seems, so far, to cap at around 30 percent. Moreover, he does not appear to be the second choice of those who support other Republican candidates. Trump’s core supporters are not traditional Republican voters. He draws heavily among older white men with limited educations – and from other more alienated folks. Like Bernie’s young people, they make good photo ops, but they have – so far – a low propensity to vote.

Cruz is deeply ploughing the evangelical range. He, so far, seems to have gained more as the second choice of the supporters of candidates who have dropped out. But it is hard imagining that Cruz will win over traditional Democratic strongholds to assemble a winning coalition in the general election.  If the GOP race is now (and it may not be) a three-man race, then Rubio faces a huge decision. Having driven far to the right, can he now reverse and shift back to the middle – picking up the moderate and establishment votes. Or has he gone too far to try that?

The looming possibility for the GOP is a brokered convention. I won’t even try to explain the Republican nominating process. Suffice it to say that if no candidate wins a majority of delegates – and four or even five are still in the game – then one of the great shows in U.S. politics will open. (The great Nate Cohn recently took almost a full page in the New York Times to try to clarify how it works.)

The backstory to all of this is the on-going struggle for control of the Republican Party. This is where things can get even more interesting. For example, if Trump were to win the nomination, this almost certainly would lead to a breach in the party. Trump is detested by much of the party mainstream – and not just the “establishment.” How would Cruz fare in this regard? We might not see a formal split, but clearly many Republicans would sit on their hands for the election.

Even more interesting, Trump has made it clear that he has no loyalty to the GOP. If not selected as the GOP candidate, would he bolt and run as an independent? (Remember, he’s spent by far less money than anyone else, and apparently has plenty more, if he wanted to fight on.) And Mike Bloomberg? He’s said that he would enter the game if Sanders and Trump were the nominees. Would he do the same if it were Sanders and Cruz?

If Trump ran as an independent, that would probably throw the election to Hillary. But what if Trump and Bloomberg both ran as independents? Then the election might fall into the House of Representatives. To win the presidential race requires a majority of the Electoral College. If no candidate wins a majority, then the House (not the Senate) decides – one vote per state. And the House has a heavy Republican majority.

Is deadlock inevitable in Washington?

Like “death and taxes”: Hillary is still most likely to win with a solidly ultra-conservative House and a divided Senate. Huge struggles would ensue, likely led by Cruz in the Senate, over the budget, Obamacare, taxation and the Supreme Court.  Government shut-downs would become “normal” in day-to-day Washington politics. All of this against a background of strife in the Republican Party. (Just selecting the Leader of the House – second in line for presidential succession, don’t forget – would be a real donnybrook.)

Deadlock might be avoided if the Democrats took the presidency, won back the Senate (with a good working majority) and eroded some of the Republic majority in the House. Or if a wave of more moderate Republicans and Democrats swept into Congress. Or if the Republicans took the presidency and kept the House and Senate. Unlikely. But who knows? Would a global economic collapse or the outbreak of a new conflict with Russia in the Baltic or with China in the South China Sea help propel Trump to a massive victory? Sanders? Or the moderates on both sides?

The opportunity for Canada

So, what does this unpredictable mess of outcomes mean for Canada?

Certainly trying to launch a new government-to-government initiative now would be wasted time and effort. Trudeau-Obama meetings (such as the upcoming dinner in March) provide good photo-ops for Canadian media, and show Trudeau standing tall with the U.S. president. But it is hard to see what could result.

But this doesn’t mean that there is nothing Trudeau can do. Not at all.

He can take the lead in a major re-think of how the nations of North America can cooperate in confronting powerful new challenges that face us all – climate change, energy, global competitiveness, demographics.  

We face climate change together. Very likely, substantial segments of our economic geography will be affected. Our energy future lies in continent-wide rather than national strategies. Key segments of our manufacturing and agricultural industries rest on complex supply chains that depend on efficient cross border freight transportation systems. Much of the infrastructure of roads, rails, pipelines and wires that bind us together is aging and much is frayed. We must think together not just about repairing what exists, but about building systems appropriate for the needs of the 21st century. We can learn from each other about dealing with populations that include both many older and many more diverse people.

If Trudeau is wise, he will step out beyond NAFTA, which is largely viewed as a disaster in the U.S., and not get tangled in the old screeds of “North American Union” and “stolen sovereignty.” We are not like Europe and are not moving toward any kind of North American “community.” We are sovereign nations. But we are also deeply interconnected and interdependent. 

NAFTA and the Canada-U.S. FTA upon whose shoulders it rested were important though not perfect trade agreements. We are continuing to work to improve them. But the trade agreement/border-dominated approach of the past won’t work now.

Government-to-government dealings are vital and must be deepened. (Why can’t our Transportation Ministries/Departments have a high-level, on-going collaboration on infrastructure?) But because these new issues will require significant change in our lives and affect large numbers of our people, the key will be to create wider conversations on these issues, outside of the Ottawa-Washington (and Mexico City) beltway, and to build larger informed and active constituencies that will encourage this collaboration.

North America does not lack assets to support these conversations. Our nations are rich in universities, think-tanks and specialized research centres. But they have played little role in deepening our understanding of how the nations of North America work together and how they might collaborate in the future to confront new and powerful forces. Trudeau has to mobilize these resources – and link them with other active communities, like the civic and regional organizations that work to protect the environment along our borders.  

The likely deadlock in Washington and the almost certain inability of the U.S. government to take serious action to deal with the impact of climate change, to build new infrastructure, or with the challenge of changing demographics may well provide an opportunity for Canada’s prime minister to take a leading role in motivating the collaborative search for solutions to issues that now confront us.

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