Several readers have wondered about my reaction after Barack Obama's loss to Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, and then been surprised at my answer. For on balance, it was a satisfying and pleasing outcome, for four reasons.
First, there is at least a symmetry, if not consistency, to the results from Iowa and New Hampshire. In both cases, public opinion polls and the media had been proclaiming a coronation: of Hillary before Iowa and Barack after. In both cases, the people delivered a sharp rebuke to the pundits as well as the candidates: we want a contest, not a coronation. Don't take us for granted. Don't tell us how we are going to vote, especially if we ourselves haven't made up our minds yet.
That said, the puzzle of the polls being so wrong remains, especially as they proved remarkably accurate for the Republican Party's field. Both Iowa and New Hampshire had large numbers of people deciding at the last moment, torn between two equally attractive candidates if for different reasons with differing strengths and weaknesses. In Iowa they balanced out in the final result, in New Hampshire they broke disproportionately for Ms Clinton. One popular explanation is "the moment" when Hillary teared up and revealed an unexpected vulnerability. (Ironically, the woman who asked the question that provoked this response voted for Mr. Obama in the end.)
TV stations replayed the scene endlessly in the last two days of the campaign. Many argued it was a synthetic moment. (It seemed authentic enough.) Others argued that even if genuine, it was an "Edmund Muskie" moment in that the meltdown would prove to voters that Hillary just wasn't strong enough to be President. The worst of the conservative talkshow hosts mocked and ridiculed her. Then there was the man with the sign asking her to iron his shirt. Cumulatively, they had the effect, predictable and understandable, of riling large numbers of women, especially those old enough to remember that rights and opportunities that women take for granted today had to be bitterly fought for by earlier generations, and that Hillary was indeed speaking for them. The open display of sexism fired them up and energised them into identifying and closing ranks with Ms Clinton. It was a show of spontaneous solidarity and defiance, and good on them. On top of that, in a rare slip, Mr. Obama himself had been patronising and condescending in saying Hillary was likeable enough.
It may also be that the opinion polls proved self-defeating. With double digit leads for Mr. Obama, some potential supporters had the luxury of venting their anger at Ms Clinton's treatment confident that Mr. Obama would still win. An alternative, less attractive explanation, finally, is that some people are simply not ready to vote for an African-American (in the case of Mr. Obama, this terminology is of course literally accurate) in the privacy of the polling booth but not prepared to admit to this in opinion polling. We can only hope this, if true, is restricted to a tiny minority.
Secondly, as someone who believes strongly in democracy, and argued passionately for it even when it was highly unfashionable in much of the third world, I would have been aghast if the two major parties' presidential standard bearers had been chosen by less than half a per cent of the eligible voters. It's okay for the first two events to influence and shape, even disproportionately, the campaign for the nominations. It would have been a travesty of democratic elections for them to determine the outcome. It is conceivable that the process may go all the way to the convention, and wouldn't that be exciting.
Thirdly, my sympathies and bias are with the Democratic Party: not always, not even mostly, but certainly in this year's contest. As a long-time admirer of America, I have been profoundly dismayed and distressed at the collapse of the United States' reputation and moral authority just about all over the world (ironically, India is one of the few major exceptions alongside Israel) under the Bush administration. A genuinely and fiercely fought contest between Mr. Obama and Ms Clinton will have a doubly beneficial consequence. On the one hand, it will expose the weaknesses and vulnerabilities during the primary stage itself, rather than have the candidate implode during the election campaign against the Republican opponent, as happened with John Kerry in the last election when he was belittled mercilessly, unfairly but successfully and a new word entered the political lexicon: "swiftboating". On the other hand, it will toughen up both candidates, make them battle hardened and far better prepared against everything that the Republican Party will throw at them. In Hillary's words, it will leave the eventual candidate truly tested and vetted.
As a specific example, consider Hillary's famous moment in her victory speech after New Hampshire when she declared that during the preceding week she had listened to the voters and in the process found her own voice. One could be nasty and point out the inconvenient truth: if she had not found her voice until the final week of the New Hampshire primary, what of her vaunted decades of experience and readiness to govern from day one? Still, better late than never. Conversely, the Obama campaign fell into the trap of complacency and showed itself to be less hungry than Ms Clinton in pursuing every last possible voter from the first moment every morning until the last moment in the final evening. She connected to the voters through interactive Q&A sessions, he spoke to them through stump speeches. He no doubt has learnt from and will not repeat the mistake.
Having said all this, let us look at a few positives that have come out of the campaign so far, happily showcasing America at its best. The people get to choose the party's standard bearers. This is in sharp and joyous contrast to the parliamentary system - including Australia, Canada, India and Japan - where the party can replace a Prime Minister, who may have led it to success at the polls, with someone else solely through internal party decisions. In the U.K., the Labour Party was led to triumph by Tony Blair but the Prime Minister today is Gordon Brown who is yet to be voted on by the people. America's is the more openly democratic process.
Moreover, the outcome of the process will be determined by a contest of visions and ideas for what is best for the country's governance. My sympathies this year for the Democrats notwithstanding, I am pleased that on the Republican side the new front-runner is John McCain. I disagree with his views on Iraq, but I respect the fact that in his case they are rooted in genuine and honourable convictions. Let us not forget that he was among the earliest to call for the dismissal of the disastrous Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in an act of accountability for the serial disasters in Iraq. Even more critically, he has been an outspoken and consistent critic of the shameful resort to torture by the U.S. that has proven so damaging politically without producing any tangible benefits operationally. And his life story is compelling, a true life history of heroism on a gripping scale.
Most importantly, barring a truly spectacular upset, regardless of what happens from here on, the Democratic Party will have either a black or a woman as its presidential candidate. As long as neither Mr. Obama nor Ms Clinton wins every single primary from now, this campaign will have broken through the two profound taboos of race and gender. Never before has either won a major primary. It is already a historic outcome. The true destination of a discrimination-free world is when we vote for or against candidates without a moment's thought to a person's race, religion or gender. As someone said of Hillary Clinton, they have a problem not with her first but with her second name. In the race for the Democratic Party nomination, people will now vote largely on grounds of the performance, personality and promise of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton; their respective competence (the prose that informs) and competing visions (the poetry that inspires). That is cause enough for us to celebrate.
My abiding memory of those who protest about the United States is the placard that read "Yankee go home - and take me with you!" With any one of the three among Ms Clinton, Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama, America can come home to its founding values and begin to restore the aura and allure of the city on the hill.