Jewish World Review Sept. 30, 2003 / 4 Tishrei 5764
Looks like Clark should go back to basic training
Will the real Wesley Clark please stand up and throw his helmet in the ring?
Such is the question I hear welling up from the masses as the retired general and fledgling Democratic presidential candidate politically evolves right in front of our eyes. As he figures out what he believes in, Gen. Clark sounds at times like Gen. Chameleon, recoloring himself to suit his surroundings.
In his first debate last week in New York with the nine other Democratic candidates, for example, Clark was asked to explain why he had been a speaker at the May 11, 2001, Lincoln Day fundraising dinner of the Arkansas Republican Party, where Clark gave glowing praise to Ronald Reagan and President Bush.
Clark acknowledged his politics had changed, then he backed that up by criticizing Bush as a man who had "recklessly cut taxes ... recklessly took us into Iraq" and practices "neither conservatism nor compassion."
Then with the warm and confident smile of a man who had just come home, he declared to the audience, "I am pro-choice, I am pro-affirmative action, I'm pro-environment, pro-health [care]. That's why I'm proud to be a Democrat."
Clark handled the question far more smoothly than his flip-flop a week earlier. The New York Times reported that he called out "Mary, help!" for his press aide Mary Jacoby when reporters peppered him with questions about how he would have voted on the congressional resolution to authorize invading Iraq.
Clark's reply, "On balance, I probably would have voted for it," startled and angered anti-war Democrats, forcing Clark to do a U-turn the next day: "I would never have voted for war." Ah, well, even a Rhodes Scholar who graduated first in his class at West Point can find himself sent right back to basic training when he runs for president.
The mystery of Clark's true beliefs grew deeper last week when Newsweek reported that the former NATO commander switched to the Democratic Party after Bush's chief political guru Karl Rove apparently snubbed Clark's offers to join the White House team after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"I would have been a Republican if Karl Rove had returned my phone calls," Clark told two prominent Republicans, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Marc Holtzman, now president of the University of Denver, at a conference in Switzerland last January. Clark told Newsweek that the remark was a "humorous tweak," but Owens and Holtzman described him to the magazine as sounding very serious.
Whether Clark came to the Democrats out of a taste for ideals or for revenge, he sounded quite at home during the debate and his opponents treated him as gently as a piece of unexploded artillery. "It's better to be a new Democrat that's a real Democrat," the Rev. Al Sharpton charitably assured Clark, adding that "a lot of old Democrats up here that have been acting like Republicans all along."
Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in California's televised gubernatorial recall debate last Wednesday evening, Clark held his own against more experienced challengers by relying on slogans more than on substance. None of the other Democrats pressed him. Maybe they did not want to alienate his supporters. Maybe they did not want to be perceived as beating up a wounded war veteran--at least not yet.
Or maybe they saw his earlier stumbles and figured, as Machiavelli would advise, it is better not to get in the way of an adversary who appears to be in the process of destroying himself.
Instead, most of the debate's fireworks centered on former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, front-runner in money raising and in most polls, at least until Clark came along.
A Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll conducted after Clark's presidential announcement found Bush to be more beatable than at any time since Sept. 11, 2001.The poll put him into a virtual tie with Clark, Dean, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.
Still, Clark faces potholes ahead. He is starting late and lags far behind his opponents in money and organization in key states. His early surge is haunted by the memory of John Glenn, the former astronaut and Ohio Democratic senator whose spectacular launch for the presidency in 1984 flamed out in the primaries against former Vice President Walter Mondale, who spectacularly lost against then-President Ronald Reagan.
After experiences like that, the perfect Democratic candidate today probably would have a combination of Clark's career, charisma and credibility on national security with Dean's ideas, money, organization and political savvy. Someone like Bill Clinton, maybe, but without Clinton's bimbo baggage.
Clark, a longtime FOB (Friend of Bill) and a fellow Arkansan, could be close enough to that Democratic ideal. His newcomer status adds to his appeal as an independent thinker. But to win primaries he also needs to show Democrats that he has core beliefs, even when his spin doctors are not around to tell him what they are.
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