Now is the time for ambitious pols to be looking ahead to the 2016 presidential election — nevermind that the midterms are barely in the rearview mirror. The desire to hold the nation's top office has several would-be candidates flocking to an unlikely destination: Canada.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie flies to Calgary on Thursday before making stops in Toronto and Ottawa on Friday. The trip is being billed as a trade mission in which the Republican will meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and it comes just three months after the Garden State governor urged that the controversial Keystone XL pipeline “be done today.”
Christie is also expected to give an energy policy speech north of the border in which he’ll aggressively trumpet the pipeline, which would create an oil transport system from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Proponents of Keystone — mainly labor unions, oil companies, and Republicans — argue the plan would create thousands of jobs and make the U.S. less dependent on oil from the Middle East. Critics believe the project would release dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, would not bring in significant numbers of new jobs, and would have no effect on U.S. gas prices.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, announced earlier this week that she would be headlining two events on Jan. 21 — one in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and another in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, sponsored by mega bank CIBC. Notably, Clinton has been skewered by both Democrats and Republicans alike for not taking a firm position on Keystone.
And then there’s outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley – a potential dark horse presidential candidate who would serve as a liberal alternative to Clinton, should either officially decide to run. The Democrat, an outspoken critic of Keystone, was in Ottawa late last month for an event sponsored by the progressive think tank Canada 2020. O’Malley also met with foreign affairs minister John Baird.
With three different stances, Clinton, Christie and O’Malley’s visits surely can’t all be about Keystone. So why are they all heading north?
For Clinton, the trips are likely in part to make money. Tickets to the Manitoba event start at $285 and her speaking fees have generally run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it’s also a way for Clinton to talk up her experience at the State Department in a country that clearly loves the former first lady. Clinton has headlined six events in the country since June 2013.
Stephen R. Kelly, a visiting professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and former director of Canadian Studies at the school, said Clinton also has the benefit of Canadians loving her husband, former president Bill Clinton, during his time in office. “She was favorably identified as secretary of state and for working with allies and institutions. She brings a lot to the table that Canadians would like to see in an American president, in comparison to the largely indifferent ‘we-like-you-guys-but-we have-other-things-to-do’ approach of President Obama.
According to Munroe Eagles, the director of Canadian Studies at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, Clinton “hardly needs this exposure” and doesn’t have much to gain by taking a public stance on Keystone by coming to Canada.
"I suspect that something else, and potentially something larger, is behind [Hillary Clinton's] travels."'
“I suspect that something else, and potentially something larger, is behind her travels. Two things come to mind: First, she has been an advocate of a broad coalition addressing the ISIS threat — and she sees Canada as a key part of that effort. Second, earlier this year, she noted that Canada was pulling ahead of the U.S. on some quality of life measures. So she may be interested in using the Canadian experience to advance her policy agenda,” said Eagles.
Meanwhile, for Christie, the Canadian trips very well might be about Keystone, as well as about beefing up his foreign policy resume. The governor is seen as a candidate with few foreign policy credentials, visiting just two countries as governor — to Israel in 2012 and Mexico in September.
“For someone like Christie, foreign affairs isn’t in his wheelhouse, so it’s a winning issue for him,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, adding that Congress would want to bring up Keystone immediately early next year when it has a majority in the Senate. The pipeline is something “all Republicans can rally around. It’s not something that divides Republicans like immigration reform.”
Part of the calculus, according to David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center, may also genuinely be to talk trade, as Canada is New Jersey’s largest foreign trade partner. “It’s not as conflicted as discussing, say, trade with China. And it would certainly build some foreign policy chops,” said Biette.
And then there’s O’Malley, who like Christie, may be trying to build upon his foreign policy resume. The invitation from Canada 2020 was a sure-fire way for O’Malley to speak to an audience that would receive him well. “The group has admired progressive, U.S. politicians and it wouldn’t hurt to deal with a foreign country if you’re thinking about running for president,” said Biette.
Of course, none of the would-be-candidates have officially declared if they will run for president in 2016. Christie and Clinton have both said they would make a decision around the beginning of next year. O’Malley, whose term is limited and is leaving office on Jan. 21, has said he “probably” will have decided whether to make a bid for Oval Office by the last day of his governorship.
Interestingly, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — who was born in Canada but gave up citizenship from his birth country this summer — has made no public plans to go back to his homeland.
Cruz “isn’t Canadians' cup of tea, even in Alberta,” where the GOPer was born and a province that’s more conservative, said Kelly. “He’s too far right wing and has too much of an American-first view of the world, which Canadians didn’t like about George W. Bush.”