For many of us north of the border, we are watching the showdown emerging around the U.S. fiscal cliff discussions. Despite President Barack Obama’s rather convincing victory, it is clear that the divisions remain—and the role of government is central to the discussion. The 2011 debt ceiling stalemate resulted in a process where gridlock was essentially institutionalized with December 31, 2012 as the ultimate date to find a negotiated settlement or else. It is a collective “jump off the cliff.’.
Influential voices such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and International Monetary Fund President Christine Lagarde are warning about the decreasing role of the U.S. in global economic matters should it fail to get its debt and deficit problems under control. The increasing possibility that a deal will not be reached in time for automatic tax increases and spending cuts to kick in and threaten a second recession in four years has to preoccupy world economies.
The European Union is in recession, emerging markets are less robust and the U.S. economy has had a sluggish recovery since the middle of 2009. A U.S. recession could have catastrophic results, especially north of the border. In recent days, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney sent some ominous signals about the risks associated with failure to reach a deal on the fiscal cliff. We in Canada may have done better coming out of the Great Recession, but there is evidence that another U.S. slowdown will have a serious impact on a range of our exports and overall consumption leading possibly to a Canadian recession as well.
While Canada’s economic future is often dependent on how the U.S. economy fares, we did get some things right that could serve as a guide to U.S. policymakers. The balanced approach regarding revenue and spending cuts that Obama so often advances has been on our radar with successive governments—both Liberal and Conservative—since the mid-1990s. Deficit reduction, debt control, revisiting entitlement programs, modest stimulus programs, tax reductions, free-trade agreements, and reducing the size of government has been very much a part of Canada’s public policy agenda in the last 20 years. Fortunately, Republicans and Democrats have been sending some more encouraging signals in recent days.
It was Winston Churchill who once said that America will try all solutions until they find the right one. It is clear Obama has a mandate to tax the top two percent, whether he does it by raising tax rates or closing tax loopholes. But there is an indisputable reality: tax revenue will not be enough. Some tough decisions about spending cuts including the defense budget, Medicare, Medicaid, and possibly social security will have to be part of the eventual “grand bargain.”
To do this, it will take leadership and political courage on all sides of the partisan divide. It will also have to involve vision and audacity. Clearly, the eyes of the world are directed on the U.S. political class, and especially on President Obama. Having been decisively re-elected last month, it has been said that Obama has a rendezvous with history as he begins his final term. All are waiting to see how he pulls it off, including Canada.
On a university campus in Montréal on December 6, 1989, a lone gunman deliberately targeted innocent victims, killing 14 young women and injuring another 14 before turning the weapon on himself. The horror of this tragedy led the Canadian government to institute a gun registry law in 1993, which became a source of controversy for many gun owners regarding the mandated registration of unrestricted guns and the larger bureaucracy to regulate it. The law was eventually modified by Canada’s ruling Conservatives in April 2012—abolishing the firearms registry that was established after the Montréal tragedy. The two Canadian opposition parties in Parliament—the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals—opposed the Conservative initiative.
Since 1989, other tragedies have occurred in both Canada and the United States. Every time such an incident occurs, the initial instinct is to raise the issue of access to firearms and the proliferation of gun-related violence. Gun violence has no boundaries; while Canada has greater restrictions in terms of access, the fact remains that gun violence is still high in North America and the conversation must take place beyond the initial shock of the crime.
The U.S. Constitution provides an explicit right to bear arms. In itself, this has resulted in the reluctance by the political leadership to deal with the issue of gun violence and bring the conversation to a national level. To his credit, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has attempted to start a national conversation on the matter. Following the recent murder-suicide of an American football player, sportscaster Bob Costas tried to follow Bloomberg’s efforts—a comment that resulted in swift condemnation from the National Rifle Association of America (NRA) and its like-minded allies in the media—which put an end to the national conversation.
Enrique Peña Nieto’s meeting today with President Obama and other senior U.S. government officials in Washington sets the stage for a productive and vibrant bilateral relationship, but challenges await. As expected, the atmospherics surrounding the brief visit are welcoming and congratulatory. Both leaders seek to establish a meaningful personal connection that will carry them through the coming years of inevitable ups and downs in a dense and fluid bilateral relationship—one of the most complicated, yet potentially rewarding, in the world. At the same time, they are anxious to discuss the outlines of the agenda anticipated under a Peña Nieto presidency, including energy and tax reform, social security, and security, all areas that impact Mexico’s global competitiveness and priority areas for reform.
Fundamentally, these are issues for Mexicans to address. The United States can nonetheless assist the new president by taking actions that are in our own self-interest. Foremost among these is immigration reform, which President Obama has promoted as an issue for 2013. The United States could also do more to promote the rule of law, first by curtailing our own demand for illegal drugs and also by curtailing the supply of automatic weapons and ill-gotten financial gains from the United States to Mexico.
But the real opportunity, as Mexico’s Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan has suggested, is to move from a transactional to a strategic relationship, much like the United States enjoys with Canada, especially in the economic sphere. The three nations of North America now make up an integrated platform for manufacturing and production; for example, it no longer makes sense to talk about cars that are “made in America.” Now, they are made in North America, as are numerous other products. Rather than resisting this trend, we should be celebrating and promoting it, because doing so makes our own economy more efficient and our people more prosperous, as it does with both Mexico and Canada.
The recent reelection of Barack Obama as President, the increase of Democrats in the Senate, and their slight gains in the House of Representatives has led analysts to talk about a changing America. While Obama is a highly popular political figure in Canada, it was somewhat surprising for many of us glued to our television sets to see him declared President before the stroke of midnight on November 6. After all, the polls had been close, but the victory seems to convey that America has indeed begun to change.
There are two ways to assess what this U.S. election tells Canadians. One way is the actual results which show a changing electorate where minorities, women, and youth will continue to play an increasing role in the choice of future presidents. State referenda also showed a transformation on certain social and cultural issues—legalization of marijuana and support for gay marriage.
The Presidential map with its omnipresent Electoral College seems decidedly more favorable to the Democratic coalition. The Senate map is also favorable to Democratic candidates. The House may still be Republican, but districting in states led by predominantly Republicans governors (30 of 50) can be a determining factor. This has led to some public soul-searching on the part of prominent Republican leaders. In a recent television appearance, conservative Republican Newt Gingrich spoke of the U.S. “as a centrist country with a dominant left”. Where is the center right America of just a few weeks back?
We may be observing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s last trimester in this pivotal and strategic post. Hillary became a household name during her husband’s presidential years. Her subsequent six year tenure as New York Senator, along with her “break the glass ceiling” campaign for the U.S. Presidency, has made her one of the most influential leaders in the world. This will be apparent at UN week in New York.
Until Barack Obama burst onto the scene, the probability of Hillary as President was highly likely. To this day, there remains speculation that she will be a candidate in the 2016 Presidential election. Presidential politics seem to go well with the current Secretary of State. The fact that President Obama was able to convince her to accept being his Secretary of State says much about the President, but it says much more about the kind of public servant Hillary Clinton is.
Canadians have generally shown greater affection for Democrats in the White House over Republicans since the JFK assassination. Most Canadians would have preferred a second Clinton Administration under Hillary’s stewardship than any other choice in 2008. While President Obama remains highly popular north of the border, Secretary Clinton is seen as very effective on her own, and very much a co-architect of the Obama foreign policy. Canadians appreciate her moderation, her civility, her approach to diplomacy and her overall civic engagement.
Relations between Canada and the U.S. under the Obama Administration are built on mutual respect and mutual interests. Clinton has worked closely with two successive Foreign Affairs Ministers, Lawrence Cannon and John Baird. The Canada-US partnership remains the closest on the planet both commercially and strategically.
In Canada, the Conservative party has had a majority government since May 2011, yet it never talks about dismantling the nation’s social safety net. Both the opposition parties, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals, have led governments in our federation—in the case of the NDP at the provincial level, and Liberals at both levels—that have produced balanced budgets and worked to reduce the public debt. The one constant between parties of the Left and the Right in Canada since the mid-1990s has been the recognition given to three important tenets usually associated with fiscal conservatism: the means to keep social programs viable and sustainable, or cuts must follow; the need to balance yearly budgets; and the obligation to address the debt burden as part of GDP.
With the political convention season ending in the United States, the Democrats and the Republicans are also presenting policies and making promises on how to deal with existing social programs, yearly government deficits and the increasing debt. Unlike Canada, the thorny issue of eliminating taxes or bringing in new taxes, and the maintenance of existing social programs in order to deal with yearly deficits and long-term debt have been the wedge issues between Democrats and Republicans since the Reagan days, and are at the center of the 2012 presidential debate. Republicans want to balance budgets by reducing the size of government through lower taxes and cutting spending. Democrats, taking a page from Bill Clinton’s playbook, want to balance budgets with a mixture of cuts and raising revenue. Of the two, it is fair to say the Democrats resemble most of the Canadian approach.
The reality today is that the issues of social programs, deficits and debt must be addressed outside the prism of ideological purity and rigidity. Undoubtedly, the social safety net in both countries, with its universal character which emerged in the post-depression years often out of necessity, and in the post-World War II period because of prosperity, will be hard to dislodge. In the United States, “Don’t touch my Medicare or my social security” is a more powerful force than “Lower taxes on the rich, cut spending, and reduce the size of government.” I am certain Canadians would have similar reflexes .
Does this mean that we are condemned to the status quo? Must we be resigned to the fact that deficit and debt will eventually drive us over the cliff, and then it will be too late? The debate should not be relegated to the Left-Right continuum of politics. Nor should it be limited to one about the role of government, whether it should be active or limited. It should be about the will to act, the need to rise above partisan concerns, and the desire to compromise. In this regard, failure to endorse the Bowles-Simpson Commission Report on the Debt in the U.S. was likely a missed opportunity.
The latest flap over Missouri GOP senatorial candidate, Todd Akin, and his atrocious comments about “legitimate” rape received much coverage north of the border. This, along with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, has led many Canadians to wonder about the state of the Republican Party today.
It was not always that way. The presidency of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s saw much cooperation and few differences between the governments of both countries. The Reagan years also marked important areas of cooperation such as in acid rain and free trade. Over the years, many in Canada recognized the Republicans as friendlier on economic issues despite clear contrasts on social and cultural issues.
Yet, since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Canadians have shown more interest in candidates of the Democratic Party. This can be attributed partly to a question of similar views on the role of government and social issues, as well as the tone of the rhetoric. The 2008 election and the selection of Barack Obama reinforced this sentiment. Most Canadians would still prefer President Obama win in November.
With a close election in the offing between President Obama and Mitt Romney, Canadians will have to come to grips with the reality that the Republican ticket of Romney–Ryan could win. Considering we have a Conservative government in our nation’s capital, one can actually expect that relations could be warm and productive. Would a GOP in November be good news to Canada? How will Canadians react? Before answering, let us see how Canadians see the GOP.
It was President John F. Kennedy (JFK) in his inaugural address at the height of Cold War who said; “So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is subject to proof.” Strong and meaningful words at a time when the world faced the risk of nuclear war. Yet, these words ring true today when we look at how democracy functions, and how election campaigns are conducted both in Canada and the United States.
In May 2011, Canada held a general election which, according to seasoned observers, was the most aggressive in rhetoric and in the use of more personalized attacks. Currently, the Canadian province of Québec is conducting a general election of its own where the tone is more strident than usual. Are we witnessing the Americanization of political campaigns north of the border?
In the United States, we know that elections campaigns can become blood sports. The current presidential campaign has already been labeled by nearly all pundits as the most negative in years. While the hope is that the arrival of Paul Ryan as the Republican vice presidential candidate will change the nature of the debate to one about ideas, direction of the country, and issues, there seems no evidence of a change in tone in recent days. The rhetoric continues to be negative, polarized and personal.
The purpose here is not to take a position on who should win in these elections, but it is to express the hope that civility in election cycles can once again take its place in the conduct of those campaigns. Voices are rising in greater numbers criticizing the vitriolic tone of the debates. It’s not too late for things to change.
Both sides of the U.S.-Canada border are currently commemorating the last major armed conflict between our countries. The War of 1812 was obviously not the war to end all wars, but it is being remembered as the one that marked the beginning of 200 years of peace and prosperity between the closest and friendliest neighbors today on the planet.
Today these two great democracies, each a federation, share the most important commercial relationship in the world. They have not only traded and done commerce together, they have fought side by side against oppression, they contribute to each other’s energy security, they share a border and work together to protect it, they have worked jointly on environmental concerns, they adhere to similar values and have cultural links, their citizens travel to each other’s country and enjoy its amenities—all this and more make the Canada-U.S. relationship the most durable and unique partnership in human history.
In recent weeks, some of Canada’s former ambassadors including Derek Burney, Alan Gottlieb, and Michael Kergin have weighed on the nature of the relationship over the years. Some have complained about the current state of affairs .The general impression left from their writings is one of complexity, and sometimes not always working in the interests of Canada. Fortunately, former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Gordon Giffin presented a far more optimistic account of the relationship. The real picture is probably somewhere in the middle.
It is to be expected that the world’s premier power and a respected middle power will not share the same national interests and priorities. In my former role as Québec’s Delegate General in New York including our office in Washington, I can attest to the fact that getting on the agenda of leading policymakers in the U.S. was not without obstacles. Yet, persistence, perseverance and close cooperation with the Canadian embassy, allowed us to pursue our goals and our common interests.
With charges formally laid against the presumed murderer at the movie theatre in Aurora, and with the families of victims quietly grieving in their homes and in their hearts, it may be appropriate that we once again reflect on what's next, as opposed to what happened. Many in Canada, as elsewhere, were shocked and saddened at such a horrendous crime and the question most often heard is: What can be done to avoid these kinds of mass killings?
We are reminded of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Gabby Giffords and others, and wonder why not much follows after the "breaking news" hits the airwaves, the expressions of sadness and grief, the heart wrenching profiles of victims, and the wall-to-wall television coverage that garners high ratings.
As a Canadian, it can be difficult to comprehend this American love affair for "bearing arms." After the Aurora, Colorado, tragedy, a spike of 41 percent in gun demand occurred in the state of Colorado. True, the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is explicit about the right to bear arms, but were the Founders thinking of sophisticated technological weapons such as AK-47s and weapons that can shoot 100 rounds per minute? Or, did they assume that one day in the future, an individual could order ammunition and a magazine by a technique called the internet like he was ordering a book? I doubt it.
In the aftermath of the shooting, some of the discussion centered quite rightly around mental illness and the impact of the de-institutionalization of patients along with reduced budget for diagnosis and care of mental patients. All very legitimate discussions to have in a search for solutions. But it was not dealing with the reality on the ground that Friday night in July—a shooter meticulously planned a mass murder for weeks and proceeded to legally arm himself to perform the deed, and if the gun had not jammed, many more innocent victims would have perished.