The Self Made Pundit
Thursday, September 18, 2003
WILL THE DEMOCRATS WIN WITH WESLEY CLARK?: Will the Democrats nominate the presidential candidate that is most electable or the one that is best on the issues? The Democrats might end up doing both if Wesley Clark lives up to his potential.
Clark’s announcement that he will seek the Democratic nomination for president could be the answer to the Democrats’ prayers for deliverance from the reign of Bush. On paper, Clark seems like the ideal candidate to face Bush. He is a retired four star general and Rhodes scholar from the South with moderately liberal views. Coming from a former supreme commander of NATO, Clark’s criticisms of Bush’s clueless approach to Iraq could attract voters across the political spectrum.
But it’s often tricky figuring out whether a presidential candidate that looks stunning on paper will actually click with the voters in a specific election year.
Clark would undoubtedly like to be thought of as the Democratic Eisenhower, another non-politician general whose status as the one of the architects of victory in World War II was enough to sweep him into the White House in 1952, when America was mired in the Korean War.
The last presidential contender to called the Democratic Eisenhower, however, did not find it easy to live up to the metaphor.
On paper, Senator John Glenn looked like a dream candidate for president in 1984. As an astronaut, Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth at the height of the Space Race and the Cold War. He was an authentic America hero. In a cover story, The New Republic said he could be the Democratic Eisenhower.
When he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, however, Glenn’s star power was outshone by the blinding charisma of Walter Mondale.
Glenn just didn’t connect with the voters in 1984, and found that his impressive resume didn’t satisfy any particular yearning of the electorate. In contrast, in 1952 General Eisenhower, who pledged to go to Korea, fit the bill for voters weary of the stalemate in the Korean War.
Clark’s challenge is to satisfy some yearning of the voters as Eisenhower did, and not relive Glenn’s fate of being viewed as little more than an impressive resume.
While Clark lacks the popularity and heroic aura of Eisenhower, or even Glenn for that matter, his credibility on military issues – and his common-sense approach to foreign policy – could make him the right fit for voters next year. Bush demonstrated in the midterm elections last year that he is not above exploiting national security fears – and impugning Democrats’ patriotism – for electoral gain. The composed and competent Clark could calm such fears.
One factor that may make Clark attractive to much of the Democratic Party is just how bad the Bush presidency has been for America.
In races for presidential nominations, there is often a split between a political party’s idealists, who back a candidate for his stance on the issues, and the party’s realists who back the candidate they think is most electable.
Clark is likely to appeal to many of these “electability” realists. Clark may well be the most electable Democratic candidate given his potential to neutralize Bush’s strongest asset – the perception that he is strong on national security issues.
I think there is also a good chance that the “issues” idealists of the Democratic Party will also gravitate to Clark. Clark could appeal to issue-oriented Democrats because the biggest issue for such idealists should be defeating Bush.
Calling the Bush presidency a series of disasters is closer to understatement than to hyperbole. Bush and his radical right-wing ideology have resulted in disaster after disaster.
First, consider a few of the economic “achievements” of the Bush administration. Bush has transformed the largest federal budget surplus in history into the largest deficit. Bush has pushed through tax cuts that shift the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class and poor. Bush has presided over the loss of 3 million jobs in America – the first net loss of jobs since the Hoover administration.
Next, consider some of the Bush administration’s foreign policy “achievements.” Bush led the country into war on the basis of lies. Bush has failed to devote sufficient forces to pacify Iraq due to a naive belief in neo-conservative fantasies that Iraq would be easy to democratize. Bush has alienated much of the world to such an extent that America is facing the burdens of stabilizing Iraq largely on its own. Bush has neglected the reconstruction of Afghanistan, failing to commit the resources necessary to find Osama bin Laden and stamp out the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who continue to operate in Afghanistan.
For idealistic Democrats – indeed, for all Americans that care about either a strong economy or national security – the most serious issue facing America is ending the Bush maladministration. Bush is so bad, the defeat of Bush dwarfs all other issues in importance.
In order to achieve the essential goal of defeating Bush, many party idealists are likely to gravitate to the most electable candidate. Thus, Clark’s perceived electability could gain him the support of many idealists as well.
While I don’t subscribe to the notion that Dean is unelectable, I don’t think he would be as strong a general election candidate as candidates with more impressive national security credentials, such as Clark and Kerry.
Although I previously thought that Kerry might be the Democrats’ strongest presidential candidate, lately there has been an unmistakable Muskie smell emanating from the Kerry campaign. Unless Kerry figures out a way to generate some excitement for his candidacy, Kerry seems destined to follow the path of Muskie, another Lincolnesque New England Senator whose impressive credentials and frontrunner status were no match for the fervor of a more passionate antiwar candidate.
In my opinion, the key question remaining about Clark’s candidacy is whether he can connect with the voters. All of Clark’s strengths on paper will not save him if he fails to click with the voters.
Since Clark has never run for office, it is an open question how much he will appeal to voters. As a television commentator, he has come across as telegenic, poised and thoughtful on military issues. I think Clark has to demonstrate fairly quickly that he has a command of domestic issues as well. Clark does not have a lot of time to demonstrate such domestic expertise given the lateness of his entry into the race for the Democratic nomination.
If Clark can come across as articulate and passionate about the domestic damage caused by Bush’s policies and their effect on Americans’ lives, he has an excellent chance to become the Democrats’ frontrunner and perhaps even their Eisenhower.