[Roughly the first half of this was written while Obama and Clinton were still battling for the nomination.]
I dislike[d] the emptiness of the Democratic primary, both aesthetically, and in terms of the quality of democracy it represents. (This is in contrast to the Republican primary in which McCain, Huckabee, Romney, Giuliani all have very different platforms. Meanwhile Obama and Clinton differ mostly in personality and physical appearance.) But of course, it is not the first presidential primary ever to have be conducted at a less-than-ideal level. What are the consequences of these flawed choices for America?
I am gradually coming to the conclusion that in the US, more than other countries, it matters relatively little which individual is president. That seems counterintuitive, since the US has a stronger executive branch than any other Western country, but let me explain. No matter who wins the Republican nomination, it is a safe bet that he will support policies which are within the Republican consensus. If he is elected president, then his cabinet, Supreme Court nominees, and other appointments will all follow that consensus. The same would be true, in reverse, if a Democrat wins. Even if the president himself has odd policy quirks, much of the executive power is split among a large number of his subordinates. These on average will follow the party line more closely than he does, and the government as a whole will mostly follow the consensus of the president's party.
This means that, in general, the party in power in Washington does an excellent job of pursuing its agenda for four years. This is something I don't think can be appreciated unless you leave America. In my experience Israel (and, I strongly suspect, most of Europe) has a constant governmental semi-paralysis, as each decision must be debated in parliament and a fragile consensus re-created before anything can be done. Decisions which are more than moderately complicated/controversial are simply ignored because there is no way of obtaining the necessarily consensus. Only in crisis situations are they revisited and some attempt at a solution proposed for them.
In the past few years the US has sent 150000 soldiers to the other side of the world, and conquered two countries there, simply because the Bush administration wanted it. Most of the rest of America was between undecided and passively acceptive about these wars, yet despite the incredible scope of commitment they demanded, the Bush administration was able to make them happen. I don't think any European country could have gotten the political focus needed to do that in a million years. This "ability to get things done" seems to be unique to the US.
Therefore US elections are of much greater import than any other country's elections. But the importance is not so much in the particular candidates as in the choice of party. And even there, despite the differences between the parties, the long-term effect might not so great. This is more speculative, but examine the following argument.
Inevitably, people get sick of any president's policies. Since World War II no party has held the presidency for longer than three consecutive terms. After 2 terms Bush is widely hated and McCain only has a reasonable shot at the presidency due to disassociating himself from Bush. Sooner or later the Democrats will win an election, if not this year, then in another 4 or 8 years. Then they will retain the presidency just long enough for most of the country to start hating them. And so the cycle will continue indefinitely. Winning one election may be less of a long-term gain for your party than in Europe. It certainly helps more in the short term, but in the next few elections it may rebound against you. In the long term, I suspect the "average" US policy will inevitably be close to the median position of American voters, and no party has figured out how to change that "average".
For the record, next to my computer right now is a completed absentee ballot, ready to be mailed. I voted McCain for president (how I wish that option existed 8 years ago...), but Democratic for congress, and IIRC for local offices too, to the extent that I voted for them. I chose McCain based on one reason alone. All the Israeli/Arab conflicts so far, ever, have killed a few tens of thousands of people. An Iranian nuclear weapon could kill many times that instantaneously. Until a few years ago Iranian leaders used to boast onenly about how once they got a nuclear weapon, Israel would then cease to exist. All the debates over peace processes, terrorism, settlements, and whatever else regarding Israel are completely irrelevant compared to this one issue. And all the debates over Iraq, the economy, and so on are irrelevant compared to the prospect of nuclear war.
And I think that only McCain has a coherent approach to the situation. Those who call for a diplomatic solution ignore the fact that negotiations and diplomacy ARE being tried, and have been for years now, and the situation has gone steadily downhill the whole time. The justification offered for continuing this path is essentially wishful thinking: perhaps if we are a little nicer to them, they will suddenly love us and abandon everything that's important to them but which we don't like.
Meanwhile military action has NOT been used or even seriously considered. And there is nothing like a honest threat of military action to get what you want without having to fire a shot. But only one candidate can provide that threat.
And if McCain can take care of this (urgent) situation, yet people are so sickened by 12 years of Republican rule that starting in 2012 they vote in a series of Democrats - then as alluded to above, that may be my preferred outcome, both short- and long-term. :)