IT’S A BIRD, IT’S A PLANE, IT’S…CLARK

The Wesley Crusher Clark boomlet has caught the attention of the punditocracy, with numerous columns out today on the subject. The roundup collected at RealClear Politics is surely just a small sampling.

Howard Fineman gets it right: This is primarily about finding somebody other than Howard Dean.

The race has turned frantic to find the un-Dean for the Democratic presidential nomination. The frenzy reached a fever pitch today in this little Piedmont town, where Sen. John Edwards relaunched his campaign while the assembled national press corps focused on the news from Arkansas, where Gen. Wesley Clark was preparing to plunge into the race tomorrow. It was quite a scene: As Edwards took the stage to offer himself as tribune of common folk, journalists worked the phones to book the first flight to Little Rock.

Clark has a lot of appeal, and potential, but his main attraction to party insiders and former Clintonistas–many of whom are joining up with the genera–is that they see him as the man, perhaps the only man, to block Dean’s surge to the precipice of locking up the nomination. Party leaders–if there is such a thing–view Dean as a disaster waiting to happen in a race with President George W. Bush

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On paper, he has everything the Democrats think they need: He was against the war, but wore four stars as a general; he is a war hero, but believes in internationalism and global cooperation; he can be a cowboy like Bush, but can work with the world.

Ironically, John Kerry has similar bona fides as a war hero but comes across as too effete. And I’m not all that sure that Dean is as sure a loser as everyone seems to think.

Liz Marlantes notes that Clark will drain attention away from the other candidates for a while but faces some obstacles of his own:

[A]nalysts point out that Clark remains a political novice — and while he may attract media attention, he could have a much harder time building the kind of political organization needed to raise money and perform well in early primary states.

“He will suck a lot of oxygen and [generate] media attention that will be almost Arnold-ian,” says independent pollster John Zogby. “The caveat though is. . .can he put an organization together in four months? Media attention is wonderful, but those who had lots of media attention in the past, like Jimmy Carter and John McCain, also had organizations in every blue highway in the state.”

There is some buzz that Clark will latch on to Bill Clinton’s Arkansas apparatus but one would think many if not most of those folks are working for somebody else by now. And, while I acknowledge Zogby’s superior expertise in guaging public opinion, I just can’t imagine Clark will generate anything like the attention Schwarzenegger is getting. I study military affairs for a living and Clark was still barely on my radar screen. He’s not Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, or even Norman Schwarzkofp. Kosovo wasn’t WWII–or even Desert Storm.

David Frum makes a similar point, although in a rather harsh manner:

If any one figure sums up the illusions and errors of the 1990s, it is Clark. Clark was the general who led the U.S. into a purely humanitarian war in Kosovo — at exactly the moment that the Clinton administration was disregarding the gathering threat to the United States from Middle Eastern terrorism. Clark has criticized the supposed and alleged errors of U.S. planning in Iraq — notwithstanding that his campaign in Kosovo was based on an unending series of errors, above all his claim that his air campaigns could destroy Serbian military capabilities without harming the Serbian civilian population.

Beyond that, though, Clark epitomizes the great Democratic miscalculation of 2004. The miscalculation is that they can win the election by running against President Bush on national security — and that their anti-security agenda will be enhanced by finding a man in striped pants to promote it.

They’d have done better, though, to keep security off the agenda and to concentrate instead on bread-and-butter issues: ironically, the hard left’s anger at the war is preventing the left from offering a populist economic agenda at a time when an agenda like that could gain a hearing. Instead, the top Democrats are going way to the country’s left on patriotic issues — and are showing themselves not nearly left enough for this year’s electorate on healthcare, jobs, and the rest.

While I opposed the Kosovo campaign in principle and then thought we were too namby pamby in the way it was actually conducted, it’s unfair to blame Clark for that. A general prosecutes the wars the Commander in Chief orders him to or he resigns. Going to war in Kosovo wasn’t immoral, just ill-advised; so his hands are clean on that one. I believed that, once we had committed to fight, that we should have been more aggressive than the months-long campaign from the stratosphere which seemed to value force protection over mission accomplishment. But, again, Clark had to operate under the political constraints imposed by the White House. My only argument with respect to Clark and Kosovo is that the war didn’t capture the popular imagination and thus didn’t make him an instant celebrity.

Paul Crespo, who served briefly on Clark’s staff in Kosovo, thinks Clark is a good man and hopes he’ll manage to stay out of the muck:

While disagreeing with many of Clarks stated political views — especially his stance on the war in Iraq — I wish him luck. A thoughtful and patriotic presidential candidate in the party of Jefferson can elevate the level of partisan political debate in these dangerous times.

I feel confident in predicting that won’t come to pass: Clark is a sufficiently experienced politico to play the game by the existing rules of engagement.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Paul Crespo says:

    Just wanted to clarify that I wasn’t on Clark’s staff in Kosovo. As stated in my column I met him in Bosnia three years before the Kosovo campaign in 1996. I was the acting defense attache at the US embassy.

    Beyond that I simply described our one-day meeting and noted indirectly that he is “thoughtful and patriotic.”

    Thanks.

    Paul Crespo

  2. PoliBlog says:

    Clark Roundup
    James of OTB has a round-up of the day’s columnistas on the Clark announcement….

  3. Wesley Clark Makes it Official
    As Gen. Clark announces today, James has a good summary of some of the commentators’ thoughts….