Which presidential hopeful would be best for Canada? Ex-ambassadors share their picks

The Democratic race to pick a presidential nominee will hit overdrive with 14 states voting on Super Tuesday next week.

We asked Democratic Party insiders who know Canada well — each has served as ambassador to this country — for their views on the state of play.

All the ex-ambassadors remain involved in Democratic politics and are endorsing, raising money for, or organizing for one of the candidates.

We asked each of them the same questions: Whom do they support and why? How would their candidate affect relations with Canada?

We also asked them to weigh in on the hottest controversy in Democratic politics these days: Is it fair to try preventing Sen. Bernie Sanders from becoming the nominee if he enters the summer convention with more delegates than anyone but not a majority?

Sanders has said that would be wrong.

But the party’s convention rules specifically allow for a multi-ballot contest if one candidate can’t get a majority on the first ballot; Sanders advisers even participated in writing the rules.

We asked Barack Obama’s envoys to Canada, David Jacobson and Bruce Heyman, and Bill Clinton’s appointees, James Blanchard and Gordon Giffin, for their take.

Bruce Heyman. Obama envoy from 2014 to 2017

Former U.S. ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman supports Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Who he supports and why:

He has donated, door-knocked and co-hosted fundraisers for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. He got to know her when his confirmation as ambassador was being held up by a partisan feud in Congress. He said Klobuchar kept pushing his case with colleagues, and would call regularly to keep him in the loop. He described Klobuchar as a tireless worker who builds relationships and knows how to get things done in Washington.

What she would mean for Canada:

“I believe that she would be uniquely the best president for Canada-U.S. relations that is running today — including the occupant of the White House today,” he said, referring to President Donald Trump.

Heyman said Klobuchar has two attributes that make her particularly suited to the task. The first being that she’s a border-state senator who has repeatedly taken an interest in cross-border issues. She co-chaired a Canada-U.S. parliamentary group; brought a delegation of opposing senators for a visit to Canada, including future attorney general Jeff Sessions; and regularly made herself, and her staff, available for briefings on Canada issues whenever Heyman was in Washington.

“Not everyone made time to brief visiting ambassadors,” he said.

The second attribute, he said, is Klobuchar works well across the aisle. “You don’t get things done alone on Canada. It’s about creating alliances and relationships.”

Fair to fight Sanders at the convention?:

All bets are off in a multi-ballot convention — and he says that’s fair. The rules are the rules.

“Remember: this is a convention of the party and the party needs to select the nominee that they think will best represent the party and be most competitive to win versus Donald Trump.”

He said what’s not fair is arbitrarily making up new rules on the fly — which, according to Heyman, is the kind of behaviour you see from the Trump White House.

David Jacobson, Obama envoy from 2009 to 2013

Former U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson backs Pete Buttigieg as the best Democrat to take on President Donald Trump in this year’s election. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Who he supports and why:

He first met Pete Buttigieg when the mayor of South Bend, Ind., ran for the party chairmanship in 2017. Buttigieg lost, but Jacobson said he was impressed and remained in touch. He said he’s now supporting Buttigieg for three reasons: he’s a smart guy who would govern well; is a unifier in a country rife with divisions; and, in his opinion, is someone who would beat Trump.

“I think he will be a great president — and that’s always the most important issue,” Jacobson said. “[But] as time has gone on it has become clearer and clearer to me that the guy can actually win in November. Which is not something I believe about some of the other candidates in the race.”

What he would mean for Canada:

“I don’t think any of the candidates have spent a whole lot of time focused on the Canada-U.S. relationship in particular — or, for that matter, on foreign policy in general. It’s not something American voters tend to vote on, except in times of crisis.”

Having said that, Jacobson believes Canada-U.S. issues are best resolved when there’s a competent, highly functioning government in Washington and he said Buttigieg can deliver that. But, he added: “All the candidates are dramatically better for the relationship with Canada, and the relationship with our allies, than the current president.”

Fair to fight Sanders at the convention?:

It depends. Jacobson takes a nuanced view and it hinges on just how close the early delegate numbers are.

“If Bernie walks in [to the convention] with 49.5 per cent, he’s going to be the nominee. If he’s four votes short, he’s going to be the nominee. [But] if Bernie is at 40 per cent and someone else is at 38 or 39 per cent, that’s a very different story.”

More generally, he said, the party has rules — “and those rules were adopted at the urging of Bernie Sanders [after the 2016 election].”

He said he’d vote for Sanders in a matchup against Trump, but has serious doubts about him as a candidate.

“He seems like a nice guy. I have nothing against him. I disagree with some of his policy positions. But most fundamentally I am very concerned about his ability to win in November. I think he is divisive. I don’t think he would grow the tent. And I think you have to do more than turn out what he has — which is a very committed base but is overall quite small in the overall scheme of the electorate.”

Gordon Giffin, Clinton envoy from 1997 to 2001

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, left, listens as moderator Gordon Giffin, Clinton’s former ambassador to Canada, asks a question during an event to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary in Montreal on Oct. 4, 2017. Giffin’s choice for the Democratic Party’s next presidential contender is Klobuchar. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Who he supports and why:

Like Heyman, Giffin is also supporting Klobuchar. As he put it, “She has the intelligence, experience and judgment to lead the country.”

He said she also has a fun personality, “which matters.”

“She would unite Democrats, moderate Republicans and Independents in a way that decisively ends the Trump era.”

What she would mean for Canada:

“The [bilateral] relationship would return to its constructive, collaborative status of the Clinton era when we had another president who valued Canada,” Giffin said.

He said his experience has taught him that having a president who values Canada “infects the entire administration with that perspective.” A friendly relationship at the top also empowers the U.S. ambassador to Canada to resolve issues without interference from Washington, he said.

Fair to fight Sanders at the convention?:

Yes, if he’s short of a majority.

“Someone who goes to a convention with less than a majority of the delegates has no more right to expect to win than any other person who has  — or does not have — delegates.”

He said that on a second ballot, delegates are free to support anyone whose name is in nomination. (Also, on a second ballot, party officials known as superdelegates — members of Congress, governors and senior figures like ex-presidents — can start voting.)

“I have no qualms about nominating someone other than Sanders even if he has a lead going into the convention. Otherwise the rules would simply require a plurality to win.”

James Blanchard, Clinton envoy from 1993 to 1996

James Blanchard was U.S. ambassador to Canada during Bill Clinton’s administration. He supports former vice-president Joe Biden’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. (LM Otero/The Associated Press)

Who he supports and why:

The former Michigan governor is helping Joe Biden in his home state — which is a critical election battleground.

“First of all, I think he would do a good job as president. Second of all, I think he would carry the key state of Michigan,” Blanchard said. “The reason? People like him and they trust him with power.”

Blanchard said Michiganders will give Biden credit for the Obama administration’s work on the auto bailout during the financial crisis. “I think Joe Biden is much more electable — for a lot of reasons.”

What he would mean for Canada:

He said any incoming Democratic president will be keen for foreign information on universal health coverage, as the candidates have all promised to expand coverage. He said Biden would want to co-operate on greenhouse gas emissions, where the Trump administration has withdrawn from cross-border emissions plans as well as the Paris Accord.

Blanchard said Biden would also prize multilateral co-operation, and stop threatening tariffs like the ones Trump temporarily placed on Canadian metals, which Blanchard called “a joke.”

“We’d be back to normal. The normal structure of the postwar era that gave us decades of peace and prosperity,” he said.

However, Blanchard did say he’s not sure what would happen with oil — Biden has said he would “oppose” Canada’s pipelines and “dirty crude.”

Fair to fight Sanders at the convention?:

Yes. While he’d vote for Sanders against Trump, he dismissed the idea of crowning him the nominee without a delegate majority.

“That’s nonsense. We’ve never, ever, in the history of the Democratic Party, ever decided the nominee on the basis of a plurality — 35, 40 per cent. That’s ridiculous. We have to have a majority,” Blanchard said. “Why would we make new rules for a guy who has not even wanted to call himself a Democrat.”

He described Sanders as the latest version of protest candidates like Norman Thomas, Henry Wallace and George McGovern, who have always existed in the party but have been unsuccessful in elections. He said he fears a blowout if Sanders is the nominee.

“The practical wing of our party is the one that can win and govern.”

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