Politicians like to pretend they make their own luck but in reality they don’t hold all of the cards. Sometimes in politics you’re dealt a losing hand.
Last November Justin Trudeau certainly didn’t come up aces with the election of Donald J. Trump. A right-wing, nether regions-grabbing, protectionist, polluting president? Despite the frantic efforts of the Prime Minister’s Office to avoid framing it in these terms, the left-wing, free-trading, feminist, environmentalist Justin Trudeau is the anti-Trump.
So it should be a matter of considerable pride that Justin Trudeau has (so far) been able to convince Trump that Trudeau’s doing a “spectacular job.”
Now, praise from Trump doesn’t preclude future criticism, including same-day future criticism, but the prime minister avoiding becoming an object of negative obsession for the president must rank as Trudeau’s greatest accomplishment in office.
From the appointment of Ambassador David MacNaughton, to the creation of a Canada-U.S. “war room” housed in the PMO, to his successful visit to the White House, all the way through to Thursday’s speech to state governors in Rhode Island (and bilateral meeting with Vice President Mike Pence), Trudeau has hardly put a foot wrong.
The approach is not the most politically satisfying for those hardcore Liberal partisans who would love their man to put Trump in his place. Turning the other cheek as the “America First” president withdraws multilateral deals, such as the Paris Accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. isn’t easy.
But no Canadian leader can afford a poor relationship with Washington. As always, it’s about picking the fights you can win. The president was never going to be persuaded on climate. By mollifying Trump while keeping the lines of communication open to other branches and levels of U.S. government, Trudeau is doing what he needs to do until he is dealt better cards. And if the occasional bon bon, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, shakes loose in the meantime, so much the better.
Despite Trudeau’s restraint, major irritants remain. Softwood lumber is once again under sanction, and the wider threat of a trade war looms with the renegotiation of NAFTA. A negative outcome on the latter is the biggest threat to an economy that’s been gaining steam (and the interest rate hikes that go with it).
Trudeau and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne will undoubtedly have signed the benefits of cross border trade at their appearances with the governors on Thursday. President Trump might not have the patience for the finer points of trade policy, but he will have a better chance of understanding the political pain of depressed state economies if it is explained to him in private by political allies who live in governor’s mansions, as opposed to through the news media.
Although it’s being done well, there’s no great insight powering Trudeau’s approach; indeed, Canada is hardly alone in going “around” the White House in this way. It’s becoming bog-standard diplomacy in the Trump era. Trudeau just has a greater stake in the outcome, given Canada’s unenviable position atop the elephant.
To make his strategy work in the longer term Trudeau will need something that doesn’t come naturally to most politicians: patience.
Trump will bray and bluster from time to time, and Canada’s partners at the state and city level might have to bray too, even if it’s just for show. The recent kerfuffle over dairy in states such as Wisconsin is a good example of a fight largely avoided, although Canada’s initial approach was a touch rowdy and tone deaf.
If anything, the first half-year of the Trump administration has demonstrated the key to avoiding unwanted attention is to keep one’s head down until something else catches the president’s attention.
The ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia will continue to draw a lot of that attention. As long as Russia keeps blazing, Trump won’t have either the bandwidth or wherewithal to drill down into sub-federal issues.
Fortunately, others will. State and local economic issues could turn into political lifelines for legislators looking to de-emphasize the insanity of Trump’s Washington in their mid-term reelection campaigns. It is also where Canada has its best cards to play.
If Trudeau plays Canada’s hand well, he might find more allies south of the border willing to hold ours as we figure out the fickle ways of Donald Trump.