General Election

By

There is a certain kind of voter who, perpetually discontented with
the available candidates, projects his hopes onto some white knight.
Inevitably, the prospective hoped-for savior declines to run (Mario
Cuomo, Colin Powell) or, worse still, runs but turns out to be a
loon (Ross Perot). General Wesley Clark, who appears all but
certain to enter the Democratic primary, is the latest to attract
the hopes of white-knight enthusiasts. Count me in.I admit to having indulged in this sort of unrequited longing
before. (I'm still waiting, Senator McCain.) I also admit that, if
history repeats itself, Clark will flame out in the early
primaries, reveal himself as an unstable whack job, or, perhaps,
both. But history won't repeat itself this time. I swear.

Clark seems like the creation of a Democratic strategist's fantasy:
an articulate Rhodes scholar who hails from the South (Arkansas, no
less). Even better, he has a too-good-to-be-true religious
trifecta: He was raised Southern Baptist, converted to his wife's
Catholicism, and discovered his father was Jewish. Oh, and he won a
Silver Star and a Purple Heart during the Vietnam War.

Clark's main selling point is his gig as supreme allied nato
commander during the 1990s. To understand why this makes him an
ideal Democratic nominee, consider President Bush's political
strengths and weaknesses. His popularity does not derive from his
policies. Indeed, the public has consistently opposed his domestic
priorities--on everything from taxes to health care. Under normal
political conditions, a Democratic candidate should be favored.
However, we do not live under normal political conditions. The
Clinton scandals produced a cultural backlash, which in 2000
allowed Bush to compensate for the unpopularity of his platform by
coming across as a decent, regular guy while portraying his
opponent as untrustworthy, aloof, and culturally alien. More
important, the September 11 attacks drastically altered the
political landscape: The perception that Republicans are stronger
on national security than Democrats, until recently a marginal
factor in elections, is now a threshold issue.

These strands have melded together, giving Bush the image of a
tough, clear- eyed leader who isn't afraid to see the world in the
stark terms of good versus evil. His reelection strategy will be to
paint his opponent as a soft moral equivocator--somebody who you
can't picture landing on an aircraft carrier or smoking the bad
guys out of their holes. The bad news is that this strategy will
probably succeed. The good news is that, if it doesn't, Bush will
almost certainly lose, given his unpopular policy positions.

That's why Clark's prospective candidacy--which may be official by
the time you read this--comes to the Democratic Party like manna
from heaven. The notion of a general as a slippery prevaricator is
so counterintuitive that it would be unlikely to take root with
anybody but die-hard GOP partisans. And, needless to say, Clark
easily passes the can-you-picture-him-as-commander-in-chief test.

Clark skeptics have three main objections. The first is that
Democrats could just as easily inoculate themselves on defense by
nominating John Kerry, another veteran. The analogy is absurd. Even
if he could equal Clark's military credentials, Kerry's profile as
an aloof, wealthy liberal who once served as Michael Dukakis's
lieutenant governor would make him a sitting duck against Bush's
pseudopopulist shtick. Anyway, Kerry can't match Clark's military
standing. Kerry's stint in Vietnam took place more than 30 years
ago. The evermore desperate ways in which he's forced to remind
people of his service are a "Saturday Night Live" skit waiting to
happen. (Don't you dare question my position on indexing federal
employee pensions! I saw federal employees die in the rice paddies
of Vietnam!) Clark, on the other hand, wouldn't need to remind
people of his military biography because it's intrinsic to his
identity. His first name is "General."

Second, some argue that Clark can't expect the kind of reception
that greeted Dwight D. Eisenhower when he ran for president in 1952
because Clark's leadership of nato forces in Kosovo was nowhere
near as prominent as Eisenhower's leadership of the Allies in World
War II. "Comparisons of Clark to Dwight Eisenhower are ludicrous,"
sniffed George F. Will. "While few people outside politics have
heard of Clark," observed The Weekly Standard, "Eisenhower was one
of the most popular figures in American history." While true, this
misses the point. Clark doesn't need to be an icon of American
heroism. His military post is simply a way to negate Bush's
political strengths. Its political value is defensive, not
offensive.

Objection number three is that Clark lacks political experience.
Also true. But the skills you need to run a successful campaign are
all things Clark has already shown he can do: schmooze with
fund-raisers, inspire loyalty among a staff, and get a message
across effectively both in person and on television. It's the
latter talent--on frequent display during his stint as a CNN
commentator during the Iraq war and in interviews since--that has
some people so excited about Clark. While his publicly expressed
positions on the issues-- abortion, gun control, taxes--and his
nuanced criticism of Bush's Iraq strategy are all mainstream
Democratic fare, Clark articulates them better than most
professional politicians. Sure, Clark would be slightly more likely
than, say, Dick Gephardt to make a rookie gaffe. But Clark's
prospects for beating Bush are so much higher than anybody else's
that a small risk is necessary.

Can Clark win? It's more likely than the pundits think. Clark has
grassroots enthusiasm, with more online supporters at Meetup.com
than any candidate besides Howard Dean. A staffer for one
Democratic leader told me there's a ton of political talent just
dying to join his campaign. The Wall Street Journal reported not
long ago that Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry
McAuliffe's doorman implored him to enlist Clark. The importance of
that anecdote lies not in its substance but its source; who do you
suppose leaked that story to the Journal? (Hint: not the doorman.)
And, of course, there's the fact that it's manifestly in the
Democrats' interest to nominate Clark. Democrats being Democrats,
that doesn't mean they will. But it must count for something,
right

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.