On June 12, 2008, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute hosted a public seminar with experts, political leaders and members of the Institute's Advisory board to discuss the impact of the 2008 U.S. elections on the future of U.S. - Mexico relations.
Roger Wallace, Co-Chair of the Mexico Institute Board and Vice President of Pioneer Natural Resources, pointed out that this is an important year for the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship given that a new U.S. President and Congress will have the opportunity to take the relationship in new directions. Mr. Wallace emphasized the need to reinvigorate relations between both countries and made the case for strong bilateral cooperation to address the challenges of immigration, border security and economic growth. José Antonio Fernández, Co-Chair of the Mexico Institute Board and Chair & CEO of FEMSA, added that the coming elections will open a new opportunity to renew the partnership between the two countries and to think of the region as a community that seeks a better development. Mr. Fernández drew attention to the need to improve the quality of life of border communities, and noted that the improvement of the bilateral relationship is not only the responsibility of the government, but also of civil society groups and members of the private sector.
Michael Barone, Senior Writer at U.S. News and World Report, pointed out the symmetries between the 2006 Mexican and 2008 U.S. presidential elections. In both cases, he noted, the President came into office with great expectations, including in regards to U.S.-Mexico relations, and had a disappointing record. As a result, the presidential parties nominated candidates from a distinct faction of the party, as it was the case with John McCain and Felipe Calderón from Mexico's National Action Party (PAN). Similarly, in both countries the opposition nominated a man little known in much of the country and with certain amount of charisma, as is the case of Barack Obama and Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador from Mexico's Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Mr. Barone noted that the Mexico election in 2006 turned out to be extremely close, and the coming U.S. election could turn out to be equally close.
Mr. Barone added that in 2006, the wealthier and economically developed states in Mexico voted in favor of Calderón, while the southern, poorer states favored López Obrador. This dynamic is not replicated in the U.S., where McCain is doing relatively well in Michigan and Ohio, states that face economic hardship, while Obama is doing better in wealthier states like Virginia and North Carolina. Mr. Barone also noted that Obama has signaled a different approach on trade than his predecessor, particularly NAFTA. Even though the chances for renegotiation are not high, Obama attempts to appeal to the vote of the working class. In regards to immigration, Barone highlighted the reluctance of the U.S. Congress to approach the issue, adding that it is less likely to be addressed in an Obama administration than with a McCain administration.
Crescencio Arcos, Senior Advisor at Preston Gates, stated that John McCain's history as a border state Senator and his support of NAFTA and immigration reform would place him as the best candidate for the bilateral relationship. He added that immigration, trade and drug trafficking are going to be the main issues for the coming administration, and noted that Mexico cannot rely on Mexican-Americans to vote a certain way, or in Mexico's favor. Jim Jones, President of Manatt Jones Global Strategies, considered that Senator Obama has the sensitivity, multicultural background and the appreciation of Mexico that would make him more appropriate for improving that relationship. Brian Dyson, President of Chatham International and former President of Coca-Cola, noted that both candidates, whoever gets elected, will be very slow to act in regards to Mexico, because of the urgency to attend concerns over the economy and Middle East policy.
Andrés Rozental, President of Rozental & Asociados and Non-Resident Fellow at Brookings Institution, referred to the conventional wisdom that Mexicans prefer Republicans to Democrats because they are perceived as more pragmatic and business-friendly. He recognized that perceptions have changed, and that Senator Obama has raised significant sympathy in Mexico, and around the world. However, he also stated that overall the bilateral relationship would be better under a McCain administration, at least at the outset. Javier Treviño, Vice President of Cemex, asserted that the electoral process in the U.S. is blocking key issues of the bilateral relationship, and gave NAFTA as an example. He emphasized that NAFTA has become an important instrument to articulate the bilateral relationship. Treviño identified the internet and the network of NGOs as two new elements that would play a significant role if NAFTA is re-negotiated.
Roderic Ai Camp, Philip McKenna Professor of the Pacific Rim at Claremont McKenna College, stated that both governments need to be more pro-active in developing long term strategies, instead of reacting to issues such as drug trafficking and immigration. Camp emphasized the need to incorporate local actors, such as consulates, as a source of policy options. The U.S. Congress should educate the public in their districts, and Mexican governors can do the same. Carlos Heredia, Professor at the Center for Inter-American Studies and Programs, ITAM, asserted that both countries should focus on education, demographics and labor mobility. He noted that the Mexican political and economic elites play a significant role in taking care of Mexican citizens on both sides of the border.
Diana Negroponte, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, pointed out that deepening integration between both countries is happening without the consensus or influence of Washington. She emphasized the significance of the challenges of education, border crossing and health in the bilateral relationship, and noted that security concerns have overwhelmed cooperation towards prosperity in the partnership between the two countries. Susan Kaufman Purcell, Director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, noted that because much of U.S. foreign policy towards Mexico is based on domestic issues such as education, economics, and immigration, giving priority to U.S. domestic issues would improve relations with Mexico.
Peter Smith, Simón Bolívar Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of California, San Diego, stated that long-term perspectives on U.S- Mexican relations must be conducted within the context of overall U.S. foreign policy with the rest of the world, and specifically with Latin America. A first step for the next administration should be to recover "soft power" in the region, which he considers would be an easier task for Senator Obama.