The world may not quite be watching Iowa and New Hampshire this week, but the initial presidential contests are drawing significant interest in Europe, thanks in no little part to celebrity candidates such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani.
After a couple of years of political transition that have seen Europe's own warmongers/Bush poodles (Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi) and corrupt leaders (Jacques Chirac) retiring or kicked out of office, there is eager anticipation for the departure of George W. Bush. That he may be replaced by a Clinton (and a woman and that), or an African-American, or the former mayor of New York adds to the curiosity.
The affection many Europeans still hold for Bill Clinton doesn't precisely translate to Hillary, although it doesn't appear to be anything personal: it's more astonishment that the 21st Century United States may be in the process of adopting a medieval European line of succession. This is understandably strange to a people who managed about a century ago to root out all political power from their own royal families, and to generally pick leaders with working or middle-class backgrounds. In the meanwhile, Americans' recent nominations for president have included the son of a former president (Bush), the son of a former senator (Al Gore) and a descendant of one of the country's wealthiest families, married to a billionaire (John Kerry).
Conversely, after decades of being taught from the youngest age about American racism, many Europeans find it hard to believe that an African-American candidate has a good shot at the Democratic nomination and the presidency. This may, in fact, have more to do with what they see in their own backyards: countries with sizable ethnic minorities of African or Asian descent nearly completely shut out of the political and electoral process. The prospect of an ethnically Arab French president or of a German foreign minister of Turkish descent would currently be laughable, in a sad kind of way. And so the fact that a man named Obama is a contender in America is still hard for many in Europe to fathom.
For all his international fame, Giuliani is the subject of a refreshingly accurate assessment by a number of Europeans: while in the US outside of New York, he is credited with having saved the city from its criminal underclass and 9/11 terrorists, in Europe he is as likely to be seen as the petty, brutal dictator that he was (in one not particularly liberal Brit's words: "he's the guy who hated black people, right?"). Why this would qualify him for the presidency is as much a question mark for Europeans as it is for New Yorkers.
An anecdotal survey on the ground in Europe reveals other aspects of the US presidential campaign that are more baffling than the selection process itself. The focus on religion in US elections is always intriguing to European voters, but this round has included debates about whether Mormons are devil-worshippers, the Bible should be taken literally and evolution is a fact. These are not normally topics that, say, Germans expect their potential chancellors to address. That said, religion has not been completely excluded from European campaigns: a debate about Muslim girls' and women's wearing of headscarves has featured in elections in France and the UK, among others.
The Giuliani/Judith Nathan fluster is also a bit of a mystery for many Europeans: she was his mistress, he made sure she was taken care of, what's the big deal, people will say (well, people in France and Italy). After all, since the last French presidential ballot about six months ago, the newly elected head of state has been divorced from his former-model wife, and, weeks later, started being seen about town with a pop star/former-model girlfriend who once dated Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and Donald Trump, among many. The 2007 runner-up for the French presidency has also separated from her partner (they were never married, although they did have four children together), leaving him, she said, so that he could pursue "his own love interests." And who could forget the image of former president Francois Mitterrand's wife, mistress and children of both, grieving together in the front row at his funeral service.
Voter concern about age and beauty has not necessarily been at the top of European politicians' problems, so the flap over John McCain possibly becoming the oldest president to take office or Fred Thompson's drooping looks and lack of energy, appear somewhat exaggerated across the Atlantic. What is possibly even more inexplicable to Europeans is that if sagginess is a problem, there is a simple solution: plastic surgery! After all, near-septuagenarian Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi happily resorted to at least an eye lift before his reelection campaign (he lost anyway, but that may have had more to do with Iraq or the economy).
Social issues such as abortion and same-sex unions are by far not the third-rail matters in Europe that they are in the US, although in some countries, the Catholic Church does rear its debilitated head to rail against the inevitable. In Western Europe, at least, this has generally proven futile. More importantly, though, there are topics that are very much common to both continents, and have played as big a role in Europe as in the US, notably immigration and economic insecurity.
On immigration, there is growing concern in Europe about integration and disappearing tradition, but not as much emphasis as in the US about jobs lost to immigrants (perhaps because Europeans generally have far more social protections). The resulting coarsening of the rhetoric and the xenophobia that taints all things foreign, though, is very much the same: whether it's Mitt Romney gratefully accepting Tom Tancredo's endorsement in the US, or Switzerland (!) voting for a racist, anti-immigrant party, the message is the same.
Economic insecurity is also marked by continental differences: in the US the loss of job, health care and home is far more likely and has far more dire consequences than in most European countries, leading to an anxiety that is immediate and realistic when the economy shows signs of slowing. In Europe, the malaise is lingering and the fear is about long-term structural change, as privatization and a loosening of economic protections have taken place at a rapid pace, or are promised. Here too, though, the underlying questions are the same: how do governments manage the effects of global economic change to minimize short-term harm to working and middle-class voters, and ensure long-term competitiveness? With John Edwards and Mike Huckabee adopting European-style, populist anti-corporate fire and brimstone language, it may be that the answers, too, are the same.
For Europeans, as for others, the US presidential election usually delivers a satisfying mix of drama and Americana, but after seven years of a Bush rule that has been disastrous for much of the world (China aside), there is a sense that there is much more to the stakes than their entertainment value. And that there is little they can do about it but watch on, hoping that Americans can't possibly make the same mistake three times in a row.
Follow Paul Jenkins on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PaulcJenkins