The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has transformed federal politics in profound ways, has reset established views of Canadians on major policy issues like deficits or the role of government in the lives of Canadians, and it will reshape political dynamics in the future, say pundits and MPs.
“Why don’t we use the deficit as an example? The general, established point of view among all the parties is that large deficits are things that are generally to be avoided,” said Nik Nanos, founder and chief data scientist for Nanos Research, in an interview with The Hill Times.
“They are necessary in certain circumstances, but obviously, in the ideal world governments would not run large deficits. And that conventional, traditional wisdom now is being smashed into little bits as Canadians look to the government to help them pay the rent, pay their mortgage, and put food on the table. Canadians will [now] be looking for help from the government; big government will not necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to supporting Canadians and direct financial transfers to them,” said Mr. Nanos.
By deadline on Friday, April 15, there were a total of 72,536 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada, and 5,337 had died of the disease, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Since the start of the pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) government has been focused singularly on responding to the pandemic as it has affected the lives of all Canadians. All other policy issues, including those the Trudeau Liberals promised to address when they won their second mandate, have gone on the back burner. To help Canadians cope with the economic and health effects of COVID-19, the government has been regularly announcing billions of dollars worth of economic programs. More than seven million Canadians have applied for emergency relief funding from the federal government.
Once the crisis is over, the government is expected to announce measures to help Canadians and businesses as the economy recovers. The Trudeau government has not said so far publicly how much money it is planning on spending in its fight against the coronavirus. But Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux told the House Finance Committee last week that the deficit could go well beyond $252-billion this year, and the national debt could hit $1-trillion.
The COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally changed the way federal politicians have traditionally interacted with Canadians. The need for social distancing between people to avoid spreading the virus is a key reason for this change. Before the pandemic started, it was a routine for MPs to go door knocking in their constituencies, attend community events and large gatherings, and meet with people face to face in ridings, constituency and Hill offices. Fundraising was also a part and parcel of every MP’s political work. But, since the start of the crisis, all federal politicians have retooled their political operations by ceasing any physical contact with constituents, and conducting almost all of their work virtually. Most of the MPs and their staff are working remotely and are relying heavily on technology to undertake their work.
Much of the parliamentary work including Question Period, committee meetings, and caucus meetings has been conducted online. No one knows yet how long will this go on. It’s anyone’s guess when a vaccine will become available, or whether there will be a second or third wave of COVID-19.
Mr. Nanos said that we’re going to see an even more accelerated use of technology in the coming weeks and months, to the point that in the not-too-distant future politicians’ door-knocking, or in-person fundraising could become a thing of the past.
“We’re probably going to see retail politics take a page out of the book of delivery services, [like] UPS and Amazon: it’s knock and drop,” said Mr. Nanos.
“They don’t wait to say, ‘Hello.’ Basically, what they do is knock on the door, buzz the doorbell, they leave their package or their pamphlet and away they go. So we may see similar types of strategies for campaigns, where there’s no expectation or wish even to interact face to face. But they want to make sure that that prospective voter knows that something has been left on their doorstep for them to pick up that’s important for the election.”
But Clive Veroni, a Toronto-based author and expert on marketing and brand positioning, predicted that the changes to political work due to the outbreak will be a short-lived phenomenon. He said once the outbreak is over, political activities will gradually and slowly return back to the way that they have been conducted over the past decades.
“In the short term, certainly there’s going to be a change,” said Mr. Veroni. “But eventually we will revert back to our natural human behaviours. We’ve been through pandemics before; we’ve been through plagues of significant death rates. And what happened afterwards, people eventually went back to being human beings. We eventually went back to gathering with each other and shaking each other’s hands and being in large groups together. It’s a natural human instinct to gather, to be close to one another, to be physically close with one another to be interacting. But I don’t know how long that will take, that might take a couple of years.”
Mr. Veroni said that, from a political perspective, the social distancing phenomenon has worked out well for the Liberals. He pointed to Prime Minister Trudeau’s daily press conferences, where he makes funding announcements to help out Canadians dealing with job losses.
“In times of crisis, politics is about taking action that people feel is addressing their most basic needs,” said Mr. Veroni. “And that’s actually more important than being seen, being heard, pressing the flesh, if you will.”
Pollster Greg Lyle, president of Innovative Research, said politics is all about human interactions and communicating with the masses and not being able to meet people in-person is posing a key challenge for political parties and politicians, he said.
“The ability to sit down with someone and hash out your differences; it’s not the same thing when you do it over Zoom,” said Mr. Lyle.
“That’s a challenge. It’s as much an organizational challenge for parties in the government, as it is a communications challenge, and how they deal with their stakeholders. So a lot of cues that we get in-person get missed when we’re not in-person.”
Seasoned Conservative political strategist Tim Powers, vice-chair of Summa Strategies, said the pandemic has changed the tone of political relationships even amongst archrivals. He cited the examples of Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who were both highly critical of the federal government prior to the outbreak, but now have a smooth working relationship in the war against coronavirus.
He said the coordination between both levels of government has showed a “greater spirit of cooperation.”
Mr. Powers said that because of social distancing, politicians have not been able to interact with their constituents, but once things get better, these interactions will get back to normal.
“Politics is a human business,” said Mr. Powers. “So I think it will take a little bit of time, but I don’t see people not wanting to engage with others in the settings where they used to engage [before].”
Mr. Powers said that a key part of the parliamentary experience is the interaction amongst MPs from the same and different caucuses, during official duties and after-hours get-togethers. The new MPs who were first elected last October have not had an adequate amount of time to mingle with their colleagues, he said, because Parliament sat only for about six weeks between October and the suspension of in-person House sittings in mid-March.
“You had a whole new class of MPs that were elected in November, who really have not had that opportunity to live the full parliamentary experience and build the relationships that are so vital as you try and have a career in Ottawa,” said Mr. Powers.
Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie (Calgary Midnapore, Alta.), who was first elected in a byelection in 2017 and was re-elected in October, said new MPs are frustrated because they have not been able to have the parliamentary experience that they hoped to get. She said they are frustrated that they’re not able to sit in the House Chamber, attend in-person committee and caucus meetings, or interact with their colleagues in-person.
“They are not having the experience that they thought they would get when they won, and not having the capacities to represent in the ways that they had hoped,” said Ms. Kusie.
“It’s just frustrating: they worked so hard to get elected to do this job. And here they are, you know, tethered in their homes essentially, to do this. Being in the Chamber is such an honour, it really is, and having the opportunity to have access to just the most fascinating people in every field,” Ms. Kusie said.
Ms. Kusie also said that these days she’s relying mostly on social media and the phone to reach out to her constituents.
Six-term NDP MP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay, Ont.) told The Hill Times that he’s focusing only on helping and reassuring his constituents in these uncertain times. He said this is an opportunity for MPs to further strengthen their relationship with constituents by providing them with what they need in their everyday lives.
“COVID presents challenges, but it also presents opportunities,” said Mr. Angus, who was first elected in 2004. “COVID is an opportunity to remind people their local MP is the person that’s there for them and is able to open doors to the government to talk to ministers to try and find solutions.”
Mr. Angus also said that this crisis has proven to Canadians how important the government’s role is in their everyday lives. The key question, he said, that all politicians must pay attention to going forward is how they can all work together to further improve Canada in the post-COVID-19 era.
“COVID has made very, very clear that the government has enormous capacity, enormous power to influence lives for the better and people are looking to government right now,” said Mr. Angus. “This has been a revolutionary moment. …The question that we really need to grapple with is, what will the new Canada look like after COVID, and what would be the role of politicians to help us get there to where we need to be?”
Eight-term Liberal MP Wayne Easter (Malpeque, P.E.I.) told The Hill Times he has never had as much interaction with his constituents as he has in the last two months. He said he prefers to meet people in-person, but because of the social distancing requirements, is talking to his constituents over the phone. Mr. Easter also said he cannot remember any time in the past when the government consulted all MPs as much as they have since the pandemic hit Canada.
“I don’t think you’ve ever seen as much input into policy-making from Members of all parties as you’ve seen in the last two months,” said Mr. Easter.
The Hill Times
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For 18 months, Joe Biden was able to contrast his foreign policy with Donald Trump’s by painting in broad brushstrokes. He was in favor of alliances; Trump was opposed to them. He believed in American leadership in the world; Trump thought countries were taking advantage of the United States. Biden championed human rights; Trump sided with the autocrats.
Now that he is president-elect, Biden will need to be more specific about his foreign-policy stance. In many ways, Biden is a known quantity. He has a track record dating back almost five decades. But he will begin his term in a very different world than when he was vice president or a senator. He will face new, substantive challenges, including COVID-19 and a more assertive China. To meet this particularly difficult moment, he will need to master the politics of foreign policy — among different factions within his team, with a potentially obstructionist Republican Senate, and with skeptical American allies.
Biden cannot simply rely on competent technocratic management in foreign policy. His presidency may be the establishment’s last best chance to demonstrate that liberal internationalism is a superior strategy to populist nationalism. He must consider the strategic options generated by an ideologically diverse team, and he has to make big choices that are attuned to the politics of the moment, in the United States and around the world. Such a bold path is not one that a newly elected president with no foreign-policy experience could take. But he can.
To understand how Biden might approach his foreign policy, I spoke with half a dozen Biden advisers and people who worked closely with him in the Obama administration, as well as current and former congressional staff, Trump administration officials, and allied diplomats. I agreed not to identify them by name, to ensure their candor.
Within Biden’s team, an ongoing, but largely overlooked, debate has been brewing among Democratic centrists about the future of U.S. foreign policy. One group, which I call “restorationist,” favors a foreign policy broadly consistent with that of President Barack Obama. They believe in careful management of the post-Cold War order. They are cautious and incrementalist. They will stand up to China but will not want to define their strategy as a great power competition. They maintain high hopes for bilateral cooperation with Beijing on climate change, global public health, and other issues. They support Biden’s idea for a summit of democracies, aimed at repairing democracy and encouraging cooperation, but are wary of an ideological competition between democracy and authoritarianism. They favor a return to the Iran nuclear deal and intend to continue to play America’s traditional role in the Middle East. They generally support free-trade deals and embrace globalization.
A second group, which I call “reformist,” challenges key orthodoxies from the Obama era. Philosophically, these advisers believe that U.S. foreign policy needs to fundamentally change if it is to deal with the underlying forces of Trumpism and nationalist populism. They are more willing than restorationists to take calculated risks and more comfortable tolerating friction with rivals and problematic allies. They see China as the administration’s defining challenge and favor a more competitive approach than Obama’s. They view cooperation with other free societies as a central component of U.S. foreign policy, even if those partnerships result in clashes with authoritarian allies that are not particularly vital. They want less Middle East involvement overall and are more willing to use leverage against Iran and Gulf Arab states in the hopes of securing an agreement to replace the Iran nuclear deal. They favor significant changes to foreign economic policy, focusing on international tax, cybersecurity and data sharing, industrial policy, and technology, rather than traditional free-trade agreements.
Biden’s worldview is broad enough to be compatible with the restorationist and reformist schools of thought. He obviously trusts many of Obama’s senior officials and is proud of the administration’s record. At the same time, he chafed against Obama’s caution and incrementalism — for example, Biden wanted to send lethal assistance to Ukraine, when Obama did not. Biden has spoken more explicitly than Obama about competition with China and Russia, and he favors a foreign policy that works for the middle class. It is important to note that the legitimate and substantive disagreements between restorationists and reformists are between people who get along with each other. Restorationist sounds pejorative in the sense that the term looks backward, but it is not intended to be. Obama’s foreign policy was successful in many respects, and the case for restoring it is reasonable, as is the case for significant departures from it. Some officials are also restorationist on particular issues and reformist on others.
The progressives who staked out new ground on foreign policy during the primary campaign will be a significant force inside the Democratic Party in a Biden administration. Progressives believe foreign policy should primarily serve domestic economic and political goals. They are skeptical of high defense spending and want to demilitarize U.S. foreign policy, but they are also alarmed by the rise of autocracy globally and want to push back against it. Several Biden advisers, in particular Jake Sullivan and Tony Blinken, made a special effort to engage progressives from the Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders campaigns after the primary. Now that the election is over, progressives mainly focused on domestic politics are very much inside the tent shaping Biden’s economic agenda, but some foreign-policy progressives have adopted a more confrontational approach toward the Biden team, hoping to pressure it from the outside on China, Iran, and defense spending.
Biden should see these contrasting perspectives as assets, and proactively create a team that reflects the broader foreign-policy debate and avoids groupthink. But he will need to actively manage the different views. He should start by learning lessons from Obama. In late 2012, Obama chose John Kerry to be his second secretary of state because he was the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was an old political ally, and was widely perceived to be the most logical candidate. Obama’s signature foreign-policy accomplishment in his first term was the pivot to Asia away from the Middle East, but Kerry wanted to pivot back. Obama returned to a Middle East-centric State Department, seemingly without intending to do so. Blinken, then Kerry’s deputy, was left to manage America’s alliances in Asia—something that he did effectively and that might fall to him now.
Similarly, Biden could unintentionally create a uniformly Obamian worldview in his national-security team, unless he purposefully decides to go another route. Biden’s governing goal should be a genuinely intellectually honest process in which fundamental assumptions and policies of restorationist, reformist, and progressive ideas are constantly stress-tested and assessed with an open mind. This process needs to be outcome-oriented and not devolve into the “more meetings” mindset that creates gridlock and trends toward the lowest common denominator. Biden needs a variety of strategic choices. As a seasoned foreign-policy leader, he is ideally positioned to adjudicate this debate and to choose among the options that it will present.
Biden should certainly entrust senior positions to people who tend toward the Obamian worldview, but he should also find roles for people who might advocate for a new direction, including Pete Buttigieg, Senators Chris Coons and Chris Murphy, and former officials Jake Sullivan, Toria Nuland, Kurt Campbell, and others who have written or spoken in favor of major policy changes since 2016. Sullivan is likely to take a domestic-policy job, but given his role in developing reformist ideas over the past four years, it is important that he also remain an influential voice on national security, and he is well positioned to help connect the domestic to the foreign. Given the substantive nature of the debate thus far and that it has generally been amicable, an ideologically diverse Cabinet should bring out the best in all factions, sharpening thinking and policy options.
Biden will need a variety of ideas because he faces significant political challenges at home. By any metric, Biden certainly has a mandate. He won 306 electoral votes and more popular votes than any president in history. However, the election was not the sweeping repudiation of Trump that Democrats craved. Trumpism has not gone away and instead appears to have transformed the Republican Party into a force for populist nationalism, including hostility toward international cooperation and skepticism about alliances.
The Republicans are well positioned to retain control of the Senate following the two runoffs in Georgia in January. If Mitch McConnell reprises the obstructionist role he played in the Obama administration, he could kill Biden’s domestic agenda on arrival. Many Biden Democrats believe that a successful foreign policy requires rejuvenation at home, so McConnell’s tactics may be a big problem. Republicans will likely put Biden’s nominees through intensive hearings, and they may be willing to reject appointees, particularly at the subcabinet level.
All Democrats and many Republicans agree on the need to repair and strengthen America’s alliances and partnerships, but this is more complicated than the campaign rhetoric made it appear. The year 2021 will not be like 2009, when Obama was widely greeted as a conquering hero, winning the Nobel Prize after less than a year in office, simply because of what his election signified. The world is a less cooperative and liberal place today. Just consider the rise of nationalist-populist governments in Brazil and India and the erosion of democracy in Turkey and Hungary.
America’s closest allies will all work with Biden and welcome the end of Trump’s erraticism, but they have lingering doubts about where things are headed. The Australian and Japanese governments, for example, are quietly concerned about Biden’s approach to China and are watching his early appointments very closely. The French worry that Democrats will leave Europe high and dry as they try to withdraw from the Middle East and from the war on terrorism more broadly so that they can pivot to the China challenge. The British are wondering whether Biden will invest in their special relationship, given that he opposed Brexit. Several officials I spoke with from America’s allies in Europe and Asia have reservations about the planned summit of democracies that Biden made a centerpiece of his election. They worry that the meeting could become an end in itself and be too inwardly focused and beset by problems about which countries qualify as democracies.
So how should Biden navigate this complicated landscape? Although he is absolutely right to claim a mandate and to convey optimism about the future, Biden must also be cognizant of the precariousness of his liberal-internationalist worldview. Liberalism is under siege at home and abroad. It will not automatically endure.
In COVID-19, Biden will inherit the greatest international challenge facing the United States since the height of the Cold War. The pandemic is a moment of global reordering — not to deal only with the coronavirus but also the underlying issues it revealed, including an uncooperative China and the vulnerabilities of interdependence. Biden must be ambitious at home and abroad, because these realms are inextricably linked. The tricky part is that he must construct a bold policy within the political constraints of Washington, where Democrats may not carry the Senate.
Biden should use competition with China as a bridge to Senate Republicans. Their instinct may be obstructionist, particularly because Trump is pressuring them not to recognize Biden’s win as legitimate, but many of them also know that the U.S. cannot afford four years of legislative gridlock if it is to compete with China. A number of Republican foreign-policy experts pointed out to me that some senators, including Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz, may be out for scalps, but that others, including Susan Collins, Joni Ernst, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, and Dan Sullivan, are mainly interested in the substance of Biden’s foreign policy, especially toward China. Biden, then, can use competition with the country to gain support for other political measures.
He can create goodwill with some of these Republicans by, in the first few weeks of his term, supporting pending legislation on investments in the semiconductor industry and 5G infrastructure, appointing assistant secretaries for Asia at the State Department and the Pentagon who can easily win bipartisan support, and showing that he is serious about using the Treasury and Commerce Departments to compete with China.
These efforts would lay the groundwork for crucial elements of Biden’s Build Back Better domestic program: targeted infrastructure investments, including clean technology; an industrial policy to compete with China on 5G, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence; a limited and strategic decoupling from China in certain areas; and bolstering the resilience of the U.S. economy to external shocks, which would include making supply chains more secure.
Although some in Biden Land support this bipartisan give-and-take, others, including many of the restorationists, are very skeptical of using competition with China as a framework for U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Some also have substantive reservations about any decoupling from China. They expect China to reach out for a reset early in 2021—probably regarding the pandemic and climate change—and would like to explore opportunities for cooperation. Foreign-policy progressives are also generally opposed to building Biden’s foreign policy around competition with China, believing that the strategy risks creating a Cold War.
These restorationist and progressive fears are overblown. Almost all of these early measures are about enhancing domestic competitiveness, not engaging in an arms race or a clash of civilizations. Indeed, Elizabeth Warren advocated for domestic reforms to compete with China during her presidential campaign. Domestic progressives are much more inclined than their foreign-policy counterparts to support this conceptual framework if it unlocks the politics of an ambitious domestic agenda, which will include new jobs through investments in clean technology—a vital part of a climate policy.
Getting serious about competing with China is also justified on the merits. Xi Jinping’s China has become more dictatorial and aggressive. Even the European Union, which is about as benign a geopolitical actor as China could hope for, has all but given up hope that engagement and cooperation will change China or fundamentally moderate its behavior, even on shared interests such as global public health. Cooperation with China on shared interests should occur, but we need to be realistic about the limits. To prevent competition with China from spiraling into outright confrontation, Biden should situate the strategy as part of a larger affirmative vision for strengthening the free world. This policy would include making free societies more resilient to external shocks such as pandemics and economic crises, fighting corruption and kleptocracy, standing up to autocratic countries that try to bully or coerce democracies, and combatting democratic backsliding. This approach would be more effective than organizing a global summit of democracies.
The inescapable political reality in Washington is that competition with China is the only way to persuade a Trumpian Republican Party of the benefits of international cooperation—whether through alliances providing a counterweight to Chinese power, through vying with China for influence inside international institutions, or through relying on international law to prevent Chinese revisionism in the South China Sea. Without the China component, Biden has no hope of creating any kind of domestic consensus around internationalism.
After addressing the China issue, Biden should shockproof U.S. foreign policy against the return of Trumpism in 2025. Republican senators may hope to harness populism for future elections, but they are, for now at least, committed to America’s alliances. Why not codify their support by introducing legislation that requires congressional approval if the United States is to leave NATO? Biden could proactively build redundancy into the alliance system by supporting EU security and defense cooperation, even if the action risks a duplication with NATO. Biden should also press Congress to enact new commonsense restraints on presidents—for instance on their ability to circumvent the confirmation and security-clearance procedures for appointees—to prevent a recurrence of Trump’s abuses of power. On climate change, he must prioritize carbon-emission cuts at the state and city levels, which are less likely to be stopped or reversed by Congress.
In managing relationships with allies, Biden cannot rely only on shared problems to bring them closer. He must also engage these leaders on their terms, paying special interest to their political situation and priorities. It would be a disaster if France were to fall into the hands of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in 2022, so Biden should bolster President Emmanuel Macron, including by showing solidarity with France in the face of a domestic terrorism threat. He should make a genuine effort to help Britain succeed after leaving the EU, as long as it respects its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. And finally, a bipartisan consensus on China will reassure Japan and Australia.
Managing nondemocratic allies—including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Hungary, and the Philippines—is more difficult. They will try to put him in a vise by flirting with Russia and China. Biden won’t succeed by appealing to the better angels of their nature, and he cannot be tricked into thinking that America needs these regimes more than they need America. Biden must be feared by the so-called strongmen before he can be respected by them. He must show that he is willing to push back and that he can wield power and generate leverage more effectively than Obama. He must introduce red lines that cannot be crossed. Only then can transactional cooperation on matters of mutual interest really occur.
Biden’s election is a reprieve from Trumpism. Whether that break is permanent or temporary depends very much on the choices that Biden makes. Biden must act with a degree of urgency and boldness to demonstrate that his brand of liberal internationalism effectively addresses the real concerns and anxieties Americans have about the world.
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