If I Were an American …


As an Australian citizen in lack of a US passport, I’m in no way eligible to vote in either the American Presidential election in November or the Party primaries which are taking place now. But that hasn’t stopped me from devoting most of my waking moments to the issue this past couple of weeks.

In the beginning, I was firmly in Hillary’s camp. She seemed strong, inspiring and, if not inevitable, then at the least exciting. When Obama emerged at the end of 2006 I was, like everyone else, intrigued by his "new style" of politics. With his economically (if not always socially) progressive policy platform, John Edwards too had his appeal.

Since the Iowa caucus at the beginning of January, however, my allegiances have switched at an increasingly rapid and exhausting pace; a rollercoaster of Clinton-Obama-Clinton-Obama-Clinton-Obama.

When Barack trounced Hillary in Iowa and soared ahead in the New Hampshire polls, I empathised with Clinton. How humiliating to be the so-called front-runner only to be defeated so quickly and decisively. Then I read Andrew Sullivan’s article about Obama’s ability to inspire independent and even Republican voters, and swung back to Barack. Then, I saw Clinton’s now famous pre-New Hampshire ‘breakdown’, and she was again back in my favour — not because of the tears that never happened but because she articulated with such passion why the election was important. Then, as Clinton triumphed in New Hampshire, I worried that if she won overall, America might miss out on something great in Obama.

It would seem I’m not alone in my indecisiveness. Our own ABC reported last week that some New Hampshire voters didn’t decide until the day of the vote whether they’d be riding the Clinton or Obama bus — literally.

As much as has been made of Obama’s burgeoning grassroots movement and Clinton’s Democratic establishment ties, this is a close race. And that’s a good thing. As Arianna Huffington wrote in the aftermath of New Hampshire: "The voters clearly want the nominee they pick to have fought for [the nomination]."

Nor are Clinton and Obama much different when it comes to policy — although, if people voted on policy, most Lefties would be voting for online candidate-matcher favourite Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich won less than 2 per cent of the vote in New Hampshire, and less than 1 per cent in Iowa — mostly due to the dearth of media coverage his candidacy has received.

It seems the real choice between Clinton and Obama comes down to style. But whose style is better?

In a December 2007 essay for The Atlantic Monthly, Andrew Sullivan put forward a convincing argument for Obama, writing:

"Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man — Barack Hussein Obama — is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonisation of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can."

What’s more, Sullivan argues, an Obama victory would mark an end to the baby-boomer culture wars that characterised the Bush and (Bill) Clinton years. And, as we’ve well established by now, there’s something about him that warms people.

Clinton, on the other hand, is the archetypal Cleverest Girl in the School. You get the sense that she’s sat down and planned out exactly what she wants to achieve in the White House, and how she’d go about it. When she talks about the teething problems new Administrations face, or the importance of knowing how to work with Congress if you want to get things done, she isn’t solely trying to show up her rivals — she’s speaking as someone who’s been there, and learned from her mistakes. And for all her personal baggage, she’s been an effective cross-Party negotiator in the US Senate.

Looking more deeply at the differences between the two, Obama is considered the more intellectually creative and innovative, whereas Clinton is more detail oriented. Obama is more open, while Clinton is more empathetic and people-oriented. Clinton is a fighter, Obama a conflict-adverse peacemaker.

The upside of this difficult choice is that, whichever way Democrats end up voting, they’re going to end up with a pretty impressive candidate. At this stage, Republicans only wish they could say the same.

Here in Australia, the notion of an election where voters are torn because there are too many good candidates to choose from (rather than resigning themselves to voting for the ‘least bad’ choice) seems, well, foreign — as does the notion of the grassroots membership of a Party being able to select its own leader. Imagine what that would do for Party membership, let alone to the shape of the Parties themselves.

Chances are Brendan Nelson wouldn’t be the Federal leader of the Liberal Party, for one, nor would Kim Beazley have scored a second shot at the Labor leadership (although the Latham disaster probably still would have happened).

As for Saint Kev, it’s hard to tell. He may have captured the nation’s imagination in his namesake ’07, but would we have recognised the ultimate bureaucrat for the electoral gem he turned out to be without seeing him in action?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.