Can Mike Pence, the boring and barely visible U.S. Vice-President, help the Canadian cause in nailing down a trade deal this week?
Don't bet against it.
If there is one man in Washington who has good reason to oppose Donald Trump’s protectionist passions, it is his veep.
Mr. Pence’s hometown is Columbus, Indiana, population 50,000. It is ranked as one of the most, if not the most, trade-dependent cities in the United States. It is being hit square in the gut by Mr. Trump’s tariffs, particularly steel and aluminum import levies.
They’re a job killer, particularly at Columbus’s largest employer, heavy equipment manufacturer Cummins Inc. The city has applied for an exemption from the tariffs. In the trade negotiations, Canada wants the U.S. to drop the levies and, if an agreement is reached, that will surely be part of the package.
Not only is Columbus Mr. Pence’s home town, but his brother Greg also is running for a Congressional seat in the Columbus area. The campaign has some explaining to do about Mr. Trump’s trade policies.
Mike Pence himself was an ardent free trade proponent as governor of Indiana. Publicly, he touts the President’s protectionist line. Given the position he occupies, he has little choice. In private sessions at the White House, however, administrative sources report it’s a different story.
Mr. Pence is depicted as a lightweight, one of the dullest to occupy the office in modern times. The tendency is to say, “Mike Pence is on your side? Who cares?”
He’s been compared to Dan Quayle, the veep to George H.W. Bush who was mocked for various things, including not being able to spell the word potato and for apparently thinking that in Latin America they speak Latin.
But despite his low profile Mr. Pence is a more powerful figure than people give him credit for. For starters, it’s important to have him on board because, given the instability of the Trump presidency, there’s a good chance he might end up occupying the White House.
Secondly, he has Mr. Trump’s ear. He’s totally loyal, and has pretty much stayed out of trouble. He is a Christian warrior - if Mr. Pence becomes president he will turn the administration into a theocracy, some argue - and the president relies heavily on him for outreach to his huge evangelical base.
In respect to a new trade deal, the more people around the president telling him not to drive too hard a bargain against Canada, the better. The more convincing him that the aluminum and steel tariffs are costing Americans jobs, the better.
Mr. Trump’s agreement with Mexico demonstrated a willingness to compromise. It was extraordinary to watch his love-in session with outgoing Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto at Monday’s White House ceremony.
But the president is still just as apt to drive a hard line. In a tweet Tuesday he blasted free traders. “I smile at senators and others talking about how good free trade is for the U.S…What they don’t say is that we lose jobs and over 800 Billion Dollars a year on really dumb trade deals.,. and these same countries Tariff us to death. These lawmakers are just fine with this!”
The president’s preliminary deal with Mexico can be better described as managed trade as opposed to free trade. That’s also, in fact, what an updated Canada-U.S. North American free-trade agreement would amount to.
On Capital Hill, where Mr. Pence does a lot of lobbying, the consensus is that Mr. Trump should push hard to bring Canada aboard. Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, summed up the view of many: “Obviously Canada’s got to be willing to reach an agreement but it would really be shortsighted for us to have an agreement only with Mexico.”
A powerful argument from lawmakers that might appeal to Mr. Trump is that a NAFTA reform has to be a tripartite deal to succeed. Fast track regulations governing the NAFTA negotiations apply only to a three-party deal. A host of other U.S. trade law requirements make it unlikely a bilateral deal could get through Congress.
It’s an argument that obviously favours Canada and it is one, among many, that the boring Vice-President is likely making in the Oval Office.