Here’s what I heard from a young couple sitting behind me in a bus during a trip to England a few years ago: “So, Hillary Clinton won, then?” The tattooed girl was asking her boyfriend about the American elections, which were then still in the primary phase. “No,” he explained helpfully, “they’re still electing candidates.”
America’s presidential election system is surely the most time-consuming on earth, not to mention the most expensive. That’s why most of the world pays scant attention to these early stages. In conversations about the election while traveling abroad, the chats usually came to a quick end when someone asked, “So, when is the election?” Hearing there’s more than a year left to catch up, most people quickly lost interest.
It wasn’t that way four years ago, when the world’s imagination was captured early on by the presence of Hillary Clinton, who was already well known around the globe, and by Barack Obama, the intriguing African-American candidate everyone wanted to hear about.
This time around, the field has not raised much curiosity among observers overseas, who find other matters more pressing. A completely unscientific survey of friends and acquaintances proved almost no one is paying much attention to the Republican primaries.
Maybe that’s a good thing. When it comes to American elections, the area of greatest interest in other countries is foreign policy. So far, the candidates-for-candidate have treated foreign policy as such a secondary issue that you might think the world was a placid lake of tranquility. Not a ripple.
The newest star of the Republican field, Herman Cain, did make a pronouncement about foreign policy: He proudly admitted he will not pretend to know “who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki stan-stan.” I’ve heard some of Cain’s radio shows in the past, before he was running for president. There is much, much more than that he does not know about the world. This alone could disqualify him from becoming president.
The most-of-the-time frontrunner, Mitt Romney, showed his grey-haired gravitas by giving a foreign policy speech to uniformed cadets at the Citadel in South Carolina, where a key vote will come early in the primaries. Romney pledged, as candidates do, to make American number one again.
The part of the campaign rhetoric where candidates boast about American military power is one that sounds very different depending on where you live. When Romney said, “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world,” the reaction among those who were paying attention overseas included many like this one: “Great,” posted a reader in Costa Rica, “Another messianic Rambo in America.” Others wondered what “ El Pizzero” plans to do if he becomes president. Apparently his 9-9-9 plan, right-side up or otherwise, has not yet made much news in other countries.
If there is one place outside the United States where people feel their own lives might depend on who leads America that is Israel. Even there, my survey showed many well-informed people are too busy keeping up with a flurry of major events to closely follow the American polls this early in the game.
There is comfort for Israelis in knowing that every major candidate — including the Democrat, Obama — has spoken strongly about America’s strong ties to Israel. As Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner has noted, pledging to love and protect Israel is a good way to court the pro-Israel vote, but it is much more. U.S. polls show that a majority of Americans want the United States to stand by its ally in the Middle East. That’s why when Romney pledged, “I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel’s existence as a Jewish state,” Israelis and their closest friends in the U.S. heard him.
But he was really trying to tell all voters that he would be different from Obama. But, as Rosner noted, Obama has said almost exactly the same thing.
The world is preoccupied with economic turmoil, Arab uprisings, prisoner exchanges, and a multitude of important events. It is precisely that confluence of history that makes the presidential election so crucial, and not just for America. Eventually, everyone will look up. And everyone, even young, tattooed bus passengers, will know who’s running for president of the United States.