Parliamentary International Forum

A Post-Mortem on the U.S. Elections: The Impacts on Canada

Notes on the Commentators

Thomas G. Weston, Acting U.S. Ambassador to Canada:

The 1996 U.S. presidential election did not bring about a change in leadership, but it did create new shifts in the House and Senate. The Republican-led Congress should serve to moderate the Executive. The sizeable new freshman class could make for a difficult political dynamic since many of the new members have a business background and are fairly inexperienced and even intolerant of Washington ways.

During his second term, Clinton will work towards leaving his mark in the areas of education, health care, and the environment (especially climate change). The international community should expect considerable continuity in U.S. foreign policy with continuing emphases on managing or coping with change in Russia and China, the Middle East peace process, and the trans- Atlantic security architecture (NATO). It is expected that Vice-President Al Gore will play a more substantial role leading up to the 2000 elections in which he intends to run for President.

Richard Dresner, Chairman and Founder of Dresner, Wickers and Associates, Inc.:

The 1996 elections produced a 70-seat shift but, for all intent and purposes, the Democrats and Republicans are evenly balanced. What the Republicans lost in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, they regained in the South and the conservative parts of the Mid-West. Dresner predicted a large Republican victory in 1998 (with 4-5 new Senate seats and as many as 30-40 congressional seats), in part because of declining voter turn-out and also because historically the off-year elections of an Administration's second term is usually disastrous for that Administration. Both the House and the Senate will remain conservative.

It should be noted that the unions played a powerful role in the election, spending between $30-35 million on the campaign, targetting about 30 seats and winning about 14 of them. In fact, a lot of money was spent by unions and other interest groups which did not count as campaign funds. Campaign funding reform is necessary to correct these discrepancies.

Graham Fraser, Washington correspondent for the Globe and Mail:

The re-election of President Clinton demonstrates the power of incumbents. The election produced a divided government, albeit a conservative one. All key positions in the Executive and the Legislature are held by conservative southerners. The close numbers between Republicans and Democrats will lead to closer votes and could put added pressure on politicians not to break party ranks.

On the foreign policy front, Congress will remain sceptical about the value of multilateralism and the United Nations. It would be very difficult for the President - who seems to be painted into a corner on foreign policy - to get support for more Bosnia-type initiatives. Canada can look forward to more congressional-driven unilateralism in U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, with half of Congress replaced in the last two years, foreign policy will not be high on Congress' collective mind. Nor are foreign policy issues likely to be relevant in the next election.

The isolationist nature of Congress is worrisome to many foreign governments. The Germans, for example, have embarked on a counter-active strategy to use their own foreign direct investment in the United States as a means of demonstrating to select members of Congress the value of an international outlook.

Issues arising during Discussion:


As far as Washington is concerned, the Helms-Burton law worked. The President signed the bill to win votes in Florida, and he did. Moreover, the election confirmed in power the sponsors of the bill whose power was, to some extent, even enhanced. There is a better chance of the Pope's visit to Cuba changing the Castro regime than that of Congress changing its position on Helms-Burton. The World Trade Organization will likely call for a panel on Helms-Burton in the coming weeks.

Low Voter Turn-out

The low voter turn-out indicates that most Americans are generally satisfied. Dresner commented that the "3Rs" which historically bring out voters - race, religion and recessions -were not important factors in this election: people were reasonably satisfied. Fraser noted that American politics has become a minority activity and compared it to "pro sports," another activity that Fraser noted makes millionaires, attracts rabid partisans, and has its own special cable channels. He went on to claim that there was a specific effort to drive the majority out of the market in order to keep control in the hands of the few.

Canada-U.S. Bilateral Relations

It is anticipated that bilateral issues will remain largely the same. Canadians and Americans hold similar views on a majority of issues including the economy, the environment, families, social programs, etc. Cuba is an exception, however. Due to historical differences, as well as the fact that there are many more Cubans in the United States than in Canada, the two countries have never seen eye to eye on the matter of Cuba. But Helms- Burton should be put in perspective: Cuba as an irritant to bilateral Canada- U.S. relations is far less damaging to the overall relationship than, for example, lumber.

*Prepared by Gregory Wirick and Leanne Fischer, Parliamentary Centre.