To watch the Canadian election campaign you would hardly know Donald Trump existed.
During four hours of debates in English and French last week, the elephant in most every room everywhere barely rated a mention. Party leaders weren’t asked a single question about Mr. Trump or relations with Washington.
If he is the most destabilizing, reckless U.S. president to come along in ages, no matter. And so what if in respect to Canada his protectionist presidency is so impactful – on trade where a continental deal hangs in the balance waiting for Congressional ratification; on China where the health of Canadian relations is tied up in Washington-Beijing controversies; on immigration, the environment, the economy and more.
American relations have played a key role in several Canadian elections. In the 1911 campaign, trade tipped the scales. In 1963, defence controversies were pivotal. In 1988, it was trade again.
But U.S. affairs have been in the background this time primarily on account of Justin Trudeau’s highly questionable call not to highlight his bilateral work. Not until a speech Monday in Windsor, Ont., did he speak out about it. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer meanwhile has been smart. He’s avoided fellow conservative Mr. Trump like he’s a carrier of some kind of rare disease.
Mr. Trudeau’s silence until Monday caught the disapproving eye of his former Washington ambassador David MacNaughton. He wondered what the Liberals were thinking. “I don’t know why they aren’t raising Trump,” he said in an interview a couple of days before the Trudeau outing. “I know all the polls suggest it’s the one thing most people agree the Liberals have handled well.”
In Windsor, Mr. Trudeau said, “We were able to stand up to Donald Trump and his punitive tariffs on steel and aluminum. We were able to stand up when he wanted to tear up a trade deal that Windsor, indeed all Canadians, rely on.”
He took aim at Mr. Scheer, accusing him of being under former prime minister Stephen Harper’s wing. Mr. Scheer had called the new NAFTA among other things an “historic humiliation.” It was an ignorant statement, so hyperbolic that even Rona Ambrose, the former interim Conservative leader, came forward to defend the Trudeau deal. “I think at the end of the day, we came out doing well,” she said of the renegotiation.
With ammunition like that, Mr. Trudeau should have been forcing Mr. Scheer into a corner on the bilateral file since Day 1 of the campaign. It may be too late to make hay now.
Mr. Scheer, the squeaky clean family man, is a far cry stylistically from the U.S. President and many of his policies are at broad variance. But they are unsurprisingly more in line with the Republicans than other Canadian parties. The Conservative Leader has spoken out in favour of Brexit. He favours more tax breaks for the rich. He’s softer on guns than his Canadian opponents, more to the right on social issues.
Mr. Scheer has to be careful, as does Mr. Trudeau, on what he says about the U.S. President because he may have to deal with him should he win. But his first order of business is winning, and if that means a repudiation of Trumpism, why would he hesitate, especially if U.S. relations become a bigger issue in the campaign’s final days?
The Conservatives have had a bad run of luck with presidents. Mr. Harper had to steer clear of war happy George W. Bush because he was so unpopular in Canada. Mr. Trump is even more loathed.
One leader who has spoken out pointedly against him is Jagmeet Singh, who says Mr. Trump should be impeached. But because he won’t be forming a government, the NDP chief doesn’t have to fear repercussions from the insult king.
The Trump White House players are hardly concerned about Canadian matters now, as so many other issues, impeachment being one, crowd their plate.
They are showing little interest in the election and Canadian officials tell me they couldn’t care less who wins.
This is odd, since normally a Republican government would favour a Conservative one in Ottawa. But the Trump team has reached a modus vivendi with the Trudeau government that is comfortable enough.
Nothing is predictable with this wackadoodle Oval Office occupant. He could see Mr. Trudeau’s assertion that he stood up to him and react with fury in a Twitter rant. That would put U.S. relations where they should be in the Canadian election campaign – front and centre.
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