Now that I'm back after some travels, I often wonder what my European and Asian friends will think of the upcoming 2016 Presidential race. On the Democratic side, they believe that Hillary Clinton appears to have the upper hand. However, somewhere out in Iowa, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley is trying to build an insurgency to Clinton's left. On the Republican side, it appears that everybody under the sun is off and running, including moderates Jeb Bush, evangelicals like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, Tea Partiers like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and Libertarians like Rand Paul.
In the end, most of my friends think that the race will boil down to another Clinton-Bush race, mirroring what took place in 1992. However, what drives my friends within many Asian and European investment communities batty is why our Presidential elections have become such a crazy reality show.
They're left puzzled why candidates spend so much face-time in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, locales with little industry, no financial industry, and fewer people. They often wonder why these farmers have an inflated importance. They're also left scratching their heads because when the primaries come to larger states like New York and California, the nomination is often a foregone conclusion.
The issues that emerge in American political campaigns leave many of my foreign contacts puzzled. Instead of thinking through big issues, we focus on the trivial. The female problems that bedeviled Gary Hart and Bill Clinton would barely raise an eyebrow outside of the states. People forget that French President Mitterrand actually had a second family, led by his mistress, but nobody minded and France did not fall into the sea.
In a world of climate change, the growth of ISIS, and Russian mischief, conservative Republican challengers seem focused on "Benghazi, Benghazi, and Benghazi." They're also stunned to observe that a majority of Republicans running for the White House don't believe in evolution and climate change.
They also wonder if Hillary Clinton can outrun the chaos that often follows in her wake. Back in 2008, the backbiting among campaign staff was so prevalent that it looked more like an episode of Game of Thrones than a presidential contender. They also wonder what would happen to Democrats if Clinton were to stumble badly, like other front runners have done in the past. Who might take her place?
Martin O'Malley, unknown to most Americans as a former Maryland Governor, is clearly invisible to people outside of the United States because he has no foreign policy credentials. Clinton, even with all of her faults, is a stable presence in many foreign capitals and has even outshined her popular husband.
So what do I tell my friends about our crazy American approach to choosing presidents?
I believe there is something uniquely American when presidential candidates must travel to the furthest reaches of the country to personally ask for votes. Perhaps there is something humbling that comes when wading through endless rubber chicken dinners and reaching directly in the living rooms during those early primary and caucus states.
The very skills deemed necessary to lead a nation are sharpened during the nomination process. Weaker candidates are winnowed out and coalitions soon form around the eventual nominees. When out of power, political parties have the opportunities to reinvent themselves. It also allows new faces with new ideas to bubble up to the fore.
Without primaries, John Kennedy or Bill Clinton might have never emerged as Democratic Presidents and Ronald Reagan and George Bush would have remained at the edges of the Republican Party. The primary process allowed these outsiders to emerge as political leaders. This process also serves another purpose. New ideas emerge quicker during a presidential campaign and it serves as a grateful release from the national pressure cooker.
Without our wide open process, there would be no Barack Obama. The idea that an African American candidate would have been chosen by a nominating committee of insiders would be quickly dismissed. It took the open primary contest to build Obama's campaign to win both the nomination and later the general election.
For us, it works. American politics, like many of our national institutions, can appear like a one large food fight. However, by bringing these political battles out into the open makes sense; it is as American as apple pie. We believe that our social and political fabric is strong enough to allow a wide ranging debate on a wide variety of issues that might be otherwise decided behind closed doors.
So to my friends who live overseas and are trying to understand how the American presidential politics works, maybe it is best to stop thinking and enjoy the show.