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Obama or McCain: who’s best for Canada?

If Canadians were allowed to vote in the American election the result would be a landslide.  According to a Harris-Decima poll, 55 per cent would vote for Barack Obama, only 15 per cent for John McCain.

At first glance, this seems curious. On the one issue that makes many Canadians nervous, Obama is on the wrong side. The issue is the free trade agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and the junior Senator from Illinois has threatened to tear it up. Subsequently Obama has backed off from his tough talk, telling Fortune magazine that some of his trade rhetoric was “overheated and amplified.”

But John McCain’s record in favour of free trade is not something he contrived for the campaign; he’s always held that view.  When he addressed the Economic Club of Canada recently in Ottawa, the Senator from Arizona attacked Obama’s position: “Demanding unilateral changes and threatening to abrogate an agreemement that has increased trade and prosperity is nothing more than retreating behind protectionist walls.”

Almost all Canadians would agree with McCain’s views on trade. So why would almost all Canadians refuse to vote for him even if they could? For one thing, McCain seems to have espoused “voodoo economics” which the current president’s father once accused Ronald Reagan of peddling.  At the same time as McCain wants to increase the size of the armed forces and spend billions to modernize their weaponry, he is also promising to cut taxes – a surefire recipe for more deficits.

McCain’s tax policy illustrates another McCain trait – his ability to flipflop. He opposed the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 arguing rightly that they would lead to deficits and were tilted toward the rich. His fellow Republicans attacked him for this so he caved in and now favours making those cuts permanent – and adding to them.

How does McCain propose to spend more and cut taxes at the same time? He says he will do it by cutting “earmarks,” those items of pork that US legislators add to money bills. But they amount to a tiny proportion of federal spending.

Even if McCain’s economic policies made more sense, he would have a hard time. After eight years of Bush lying the country into war and tapping his countrymen’s telephones illegally, 2008 looks like a Democratic year. And the party has nominated a candidate who has the wind in his sails.

Obama is the most engaging and attractive candidate nominated by either party in my lifetime. He epitomizes the multiculturalism so valued by Canadians. As John Ibbitson writes in the Globe and Mail, Americans are thinking seriously about electing a Kenyan-American who has an Indonesian-American half-sister who is herself married to a Chinese-Canadian doctor. So Obama has a Canadian connection.

Perhaps at an intuitive level Canadians understand that the United States (and Canada) need Obama. Recent polling shows that 80 per cent of Americans believe their country is headed in the wrong direction, a higher number than at any time since polling began.

Whether or not Canadians grasp the specifics of Mr. Obama’s platform, they seem emphatically to buy his message of hope and change.

And so do I, especially after I heard Obama deliver his message at an historic unity meeting in the village of Unity (population 1707), New Hampshire, by the Vermont border.

After driving from Montreal, my friend Jim and I got into the unity rally, where a crowd of 5,000 on a hot sunny day enthusiastically waited the arrival of Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton.

They did not disappoint. Senator Clinton promised that she would help Obama and the Democratic ticket in any way she could. Some of her female supporters, seated around us, nodded their heads when she urged them to back Obama and forget any foolish notion of fleeing to Senator McCain.

Senator Obama reciprocated by assuring the former first lady how much he needed her help and that of her husband too. As the two leading Democrats embraced each other and raised their clasped hands high, the crowd went wild. Their party is now solidly united for change.

There was only one incident that left a bad taste in the mouth. A few yards from where we were sitting, a minor disturbance broke out. I looked around and saw a state trooper hustling away a fiftyish man wearing a National Rifle Association T-shirt. That didn’t bother me but the expression on the man’s face did. It was a narrow face, lips compressed and red with anger. A face to raise apprehension.

After the speeches I got myself down to the rope line and managed to shake hands with Barack Obama. His handshake was firm, his hands rough.

It was a satisfying way to end a splendid day.



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