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Presidential survivor

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Friday, 15 February 2008

Apparently we should care about the American presidential elections because America is the most powerful nation on the planet. Some say when America sneezes Australia catches a cold (and it does seem that when America goes to war so do we).

However, I suspect that, like many, I follow the US elections because for political junkies it is the best show in town. The US has produced larger than life politicians from LBJ and Nixon through to William Jefferson Clinton; men whose lives and careers are psycho-dramas. This season we have Obama, Hillary, Huckabee, and a 71-year-old comeback “kid”.

Another great pleasure of following American elections is trying to make sense of the rules, so complicated and arcane that most experts do not fully understand them. Then there are the TV pundits with names like Wolf Blitzer and Major Garrett who can talk about lunch-bucket Democrats, Super Delegates, and the rural gerrymander for hours while pulling up flashy graphics showing how the fate of a candidate (and maybe the free world) depends on getting votes from corn farmers in southwestern Iowa.


Some of us hope this year’s US elections are drawn out for months and that the Democratic Party even has a brokered convention where frenzied Obama and Clinton supporters dressed in Red, White and Blue fight it out with balloons and confetti.

It is assumed that most people like elections to be short and simple. The experts tell us the public is largely politically apathetic. Thus when you ask Joe Six Pack what is worse: political ignorance or apathy, they will reply “I don’t know and I don’t care”. Given this assumption, journalists spend a lot of time telling people the winners before these citizens cast their vote.

However the 2008 US primaries have thankfully reminded us pundits that democracy is not entirely formulaic by proving the experts wrong a number of times already. In this unpredictable environment we have seen a young Afro-American Senator, with very limited corporate links, emerge with more money than any candidate ever and a chance of being the next US president. Meanwhile, the super competent and ultra ambitious Hillary Clinton is trying everything in the collective armoury of the Clinton dynasty to stop him.

At this point in the show only three candidates are likely to be the next US president. On the Republican Party side Senator John McCain is the most likely nominee and by far the oldest at 71 years. His moderate domestic record and his maverick personality have created a tense relationship within the powerful Christian conservative leadership within the Republican Party.

After being defeated by George W. Bush and the religious right in the 2000 primaries McCain called tele-evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell the “agents of intolerance on the right” and the “forces of evil” (he laughed it off as Luke Skywalker talk the next day). McCain has a sardonic sense of humour and apparently a volcanic temper. Compared to Kevin Rudd or John Howard, McCain is extremely undisciplined and often seems to say the first thing to come into his head. Hence his campaign is called the “straight talk express”.

On the Democrat side you have to have been living under a rock not to have heard of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and their close battle to be the nominee. Hillary Clinton recently said that she was “the most famous person you do not know”. The television age gives us a false familiarity thus we cry when famous actors die and hate certain politicians’ wives for supposedly being “scheming”.


Given such passions many commentators claimed Hillary could never be elected to any public office, thus she stuck with Bill because that was her only way to wield power and influence. However, when voters took a second look at Hillary they often liked her ideas, determination and smarts.

Lastly, the star of this year’s race: Barack Obama. Where Hillary’s efforts and ambitions are often easy to see and mock, Obama is the laid back guy who somehow manages to make campaigning and winning look easy. Occasionally he makes inspiring speeches but most of the time his campaign performances are low-key, thoughtful, and casual.

Some complain that he talks largely in platitudes and offers no real substance. Obama certainly speaks in broad terms, but so do most US presidents, whose role is best understood as part policy-maker and part national cheerleader.

At this point in the Democratic Party contest, Barack Obama is ahead and if he wins the primaries in Wisconsin, Texas, and Ohio held over the next few weeks, there will be intense media-driven pressure on Hillary Clinton to step aside. The “math”, as Americans say, is looking difficult for Hillary to win the pledged delegate race. However, if she wins in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania then it is pretty much a draw. If this occurs an unpredictable battle is likely to unfold at the Democratic Party convention in Denver in late August.

We political junkies have long been arguing that democratic politics in places like the US and Australia is too orchestrated by political advisers and too tightly controlled by the parties. I hope the media learns to relish this fascinating contest in the US and avoids rushing to declare a likely winner before the people have voted (or had their votes counted).

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First published in the Sunday Mail on February 10, 2008.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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