President Joe Biden speaks about his student debt relief plan at Central New Mexico Community College, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, in Albuquerque, N.M. Biden is warning U.S. voters that American democracy is at stake in this week's midterm elections. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Patrick Semansky

It’s the democracy, stupid: midterm stakes for Canadians are much the same as in U.S.

WASHINGTON — It’s not every day that a Canadian prime minister gets name-checked in a political debate in the United States. But in a hyper-polarized midterm election season, it’s not surprising it would happen to Justin Trudeau.

It came during a heated, hyperbolic showdown between Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Republican challenger Tudor Dixon, who attacked her rival’s yearlong bid to shut down the cross-border Line 5 pipeline.

“Justin Trudeau, who I would say is the most radical environmentalist in the entire world, came out and invoked a 1977 treaty telling Gretchen Whitmer she could not shut down Line 5,” Dixon said.

“Line 5 has not been shut down, but that’s not because Gretchen Whitmer hasn’t tried.”

Whitmer’s administration has been battling in court for the last year to shut down the pipeline, fearing an environmental disaster in the Straits of Mackinac, the ecologically sensitive corridor where Line 5 crosses the Great Lakes.

Her Oct. 25 debate-night defence of the state’s ongoing lawsuit against Line 5’s owner and operator, Calgary-based Enbridge Inc., was hardly strident — evidence of how vulnerable Democrats are feeling when it comes to energy prices.

“First, let me clarify there has been no change in Line 5. No change,” she said, noting that the company’s plans to encase the twin gas line in an underground tunnel are moving forward and “all of the permits have been executed.”

She emphasized efforts in Michigan to build more sources of sustainable wind and solar energy, describing the state as topping the list of creating new clean energy jobs across the country.

“We know that costs have gone up on everything. And that’s why building out energy alternatives is really important — giving you alternatives to help bring down the cost of energy,” Whitmer said.

“We are focused on building out alternatives — ensuring our energy independence, protecting you from spikes and protecting our Great Lakes. It’s not one or the other. We must do all of it.”

Like the ill-fated Keystone XL pipeline project before it, vetoed by President Joe Biden on his first day in the White House, Line 5 has become a literal and rhetorical symbol of the state of Canada-U.S. relations: economically vital but politically awkward.

It was upstaged last year by evidence that U.S. protectionism is alive and well, crystallized with chilling clarity in Biden’s original vision for encouraging Americans to buy electric vehicles: only U.S.-made, union-built cars and trucks need apply.

That vision, framed by industry and Ottawa alike as an existential threat to Canada’s auto sector, was replaced in August by the Inflation Reduction Act, a centrepiece Biden victory with EV incentives that now include Canada and Mexico.

And while a Republican-controlled Congress would surely aim to undo the Democratic agenda, Biden’s $369-billion climate and energy spending measures are likely safe, considering a repeal would require a presidential signature.

In a fall economic update released Thursday, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland detailed some of how Canada plans to capitalize on the package, including plans for an investment program for EVs and battery-making, as well as tax incentives for the production of hydrogen fuels.

Political observers in both countries are under no illusions about what Capitol Hill will be like over the next two years if the Republicans win control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Investigations into former president Donald Trump’s role in the riots of Jan. 6, 2021, will no doubt come to a halt, and new ones will crop up, including into the FBI’s search for top secret documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago sanctuary and the finances of Biden’s son, Hunter.

Republicans have also been threatening to block White House efforts to raise the debt ceiling, a periodic rite of passage that has become weaponized in recent years and is likely to be a major lever in GOP efforts to secure spending cuts, much as it was used against Barack Obama back in 2011.

Democrats are discussing whether to use their remaining time in control of Congress — the so-called lame-duck session — to raise the debt limit pre-emptively in hopes of short-circuiting Republican tactics.

It all adds up to legislative gridlock, a state of affairs that on balance wouldn’t be such a bad thing for Canada after six turbulent years — first Trump, then a Democratic president who proved more protectionist-minded than many expected.

The bigger worry for Canadians is the same as it should be for Americans, say experts: the dangers that a newly empowered GOP would likely pose to the world’s most powerful and enduring democracy.

“It’s frightening,” said Matthew Lebo, a specialist in U.S. politics and chair of the political science department at Western University in London, Ont.

He’s talking about the most extreme voices in right-wing politics — people like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar — taking over control of all-important congressional committees.

“It’s not like democracy might start sliding. Democracy obviously has backslid a great amount in the U.S. And the prospects of getting back on the right trajectory are dim with those people in committee chairs.”

For Biden in particular, the health of American democracy is clearly top of mind, especially after last week’s brutal attack on Paul Pelosi by a conspiracy theorist who was looking for his wife, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“I appeal to all Americans, regardless of party, to meet this moment of national and generational importance,” Biden said.

“We must vote, knowing what’s at stake is not just the policy of the moment, but institutions that have held us together as we have sought a more perfect union … We must vote knowing who we have been, and what we’re at risk of becoming.”

Canadians who tune in during the final throes of midterm season will also get a glimpse of some younger future leaders who might be the ones to decide the U.S. has to turn away from the abyss, said Chris Sands, head of the Canada Institute at the D.C.-based Wilson Center.

“There’s an opportunity in this election to see some of that coming up, because this time — like so many past times — we’ve been seeing older veteran politicians saying, ‘I can’t take it anymore, I’m gonna retire,’ and I think they should,” Sands said.

“I think that’s the natural change, that will be a sea change in the way that we practice politics, I hope for the better.”