All around the United States… all around the world… millions of people await the results of tonight’s historic American election. The anxiety and anticipation levels are palpably apparent even here in Ottawa, where people are talking about little else.
As in every other national capital, officials in Ottawa have been gauging the implications of the anticipated election results in the U.S. and preparing their government for future relations with the new American administration.
The anxiety level may be especially high in the office of Stephen Harper, the newly re-elected Prime Minister of Canada. For this country, no other international relationship comes close to approaching in importance the one Canada has with its southern neighbor.
If polls are accurate, the PMO will have to adjust to the new international priorities of a Barack Obama administration, which are certain to be markedly different from those of George W. Bush on such important files as Afghanistan, the environment, trade, and border security.
Harper may also have to do some damage control with Obama over the so-called NAFTA-gate incident from earlier this year, when a Canadian diplomatic leak made Obama look as if he was being hypocritical on re-opening NAFTA and may have contributed to his loss to Hillary Clinton in the Ohio Democratic primary.
Finally, Harper – a keen student of Canadian political history – may be anxious about an interesting phenomenon that has affected a number of his Conservative predecessors. Call it the Curse of the Democratic President.
Conservative Prime Ministers don’t come to power all too often in Canada, but on three separate occasions, dating back to the Great Depression, the inauguration of a Democratic President in the U.S. has served as a harbinger of a Conservative defeat, leading to an extended spell on the opposition benches.
The most recent example came in 1993, when Bill Clinton was sworn in as U.S. President at the tail end of Brian Mulroney’s reign as PM, in the midst of an economic downturn. Within ten months of Clinton’s inauguration, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals had taken power north of the border, and wound up keeping it until Harper became PM in 2006.
When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated President in January, 1961, his prime ministerial counterpart John Diefenbaker was leading the largest majority government in Canadian history up until that point. A year and a half later, Diefenbaker – who never got along with Kennedy all too well – squeaked back into power with a minority. But in April 1963, the Liberals began a string of election victories that would keep them in office for the next 16 years.
The curse began during the prime ministership of R.B. Bennett, who had the misfortune of governing during the Great Depression. He had been in office for 2.5 years when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into office in March, 1933. Bennett tried to follow Roosevelt’s lead by introducing a Canadian New Deal, but it couldn’t save his political career. The Liberals took power a year and a half after Roosevelt became President, and stayed in office for more than 21 years, well into the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
A Democratic President taking office during an international economic downturn? It’s enough to keep a Canadian Conservative Prime Minister up at night…