Is Clark Super?

There’s a TV show called Smallville about a guy named Clark – teen-aged Clark Kent, the future Superman. The first line of the show’s theme song sums up the way I’ve felt a lot of the time during the Bush administration: “Somebody save me.”

Democrats always seem to be looking for a savior – some non-candidate who can throw his or her hat into the ring and save us not just from the Republicans, but from the candidates we already have. Even at this late date, I still sometimes hear people talk about Hillary Clinton that way: Maybe she’ll run. Maybe she’ll save us.

Back in late summer, the Savior Du Jour was another guy named Clark: General Wesley Clark. At the time there were two theories about how to beat George Bush. In the Joe Lieberman theory you move to the right until the polls say that you’re between Bush and a majority of the public. In the Howard Dean theory you prove your leadership by taking strong, heartfelt positions whether they are popular or not: being against the Iraq War, for example. (For what it’s worth, the surprise hit of the 2000 campaign, John McCain, did it the Dean way. The polls said nobody cared about campaign finance reform, but he went out and told people why they ought to care.)

Wesley Clark in KeeneThe fantasy propelling the draft-Clark movement was that we could have it both ways. By running a decorated general from Arkansas, Democrats could appeal to the center of the political spectrum while still taking a principled stand against the War. Even moreso than John Kerry, Clark is a real military man who can make Flightsuit George look like the made-for-TV poser he is. Like Bush, Clark has a downhome accent that appeals to the common people, but like Bill Clinton, he is a Rhodes scholar. As NATO commander, Clark won his war (Kosovo) with a broad international coalition and no American battle casualties. But (like Dean) Clark opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, and didn’t bail out when that position became unpopular. Bill Clinton with middle-America values, Howard Dean with four stars on his shoulder – what’s not to like?

Then in mid-September Clark made the mistake that sinks so many would-be saviors – he announced his candidacy. Suddenly he had to say how he would get us out of Iraq, what he would do about the deficit, how he would save American jobs without starting a trade war – all those no-easy-answer questions that the other candidates had been struggling with for months. And his answers sounded a lot like their answers, because – face it – the other candidates are all smart people, and if there were easy answers they’d have found them. (Pay attention, Hillary!)

Worse, Clark gaffed in the first 24 hours of his campaign: He said that he would have voted for the resolution that authorized the Iraq War. That vote was precisely what had torpedoed the Kerry campaign and made Dean’s surge possible. It was ballast that potential Clark supporters were trying to dump, and here he was taking it onboard voluntarily. He backed off the statement immediately, but the damage was done. He wasn’t a savior at all; he was just another waffling politician.

One cold night in Keene

Wednesday night (January 7), I finally managed to see General Clark in person. He hadn’t been running yet in April and May when I saw most of the other candidates, and since his announcement our schedules had stubbornly refused to mesh. Every time I was out of town, it seemed, I would pick up a newspaper and see Wesley Clark quotes under a Nashua dateline.

Having already missed Clark in Nashua earlier in the week – I was in California – I had to drive an hour to Keene. The temperature was in the single digits and I didn’t want to think about the wind chill. I arrived at the grade school where Clark’s meeting had been scheduled, only to discover that the meeting had moved to a larger room in the high school across town.

It was still too small. I got one of the last seats in the high school cafeteria, and people kept arriving while I munched the mini Clark bar I was handed on the way in. The room was set up amphitheater style, focused on an open space in the center where Clark would roam. It is hard to estimate spaces like this, but I guessed that the seating would accommodate about 300 people. Eventually substantial numbers of people stood on all sides, totally maybe 400 or 500. (I later heard a CNBC reporter claim 800, but that seems impossible.)

As always, I came with a bias. I had committed myself to Howard Dean back in May after I saw him the first time, and I’ve seen him twice since. I’ve sent letters to perfect strangers in my neighborhood, telling them why they should support Dean. (About a third of them came back unopened. Voter lists are not very accurate, it seems.) I’ve transmitted the Dean virus to others, some of whom have even worse cases than mine. In the summer I brought a woman from my church (in Massachusetts) to a Dean tent meeting, and lately she has been coming up to Nashua on Fridays to work for the campaign. A woman I visited during my California trip is now preparing to take a train to Iowa to work for Dean in the caucuses. Among the true Deaniacs I’m something of a slacker – you won’t see me in Iowa – but I recognize them as my people.

I wasn’t sure what I thought about Clark. I had been skeptical of him as a savior back in September, and after his poll numbers sank I stopped paying attention for a while. In December I caught a delayed broadcast on C-SPAN of a Clark event I could have attended in Manchester four hours before, if I’d been on my toes. He looked good. He answered questions clearly and forthrightly – even the difficult ones about his gaffe, or the fact that he supported Republicans in the 80’s. He thought well on his feet. He projected well on camera. He had sound positions on the issues.

Maybe I needed to see him after all.

How to talk about religion and family values

As is typical in campaign events, Clark was about fifteen minutes late. He had twenty minutes of opening remarks, took questions for about fifty minutes, and then had a five minute closing. He stayed after to shake hands, but I didn’t. I had a cold, dark hour-long drive ahead of me, and he had a long line of hand-shakers in front of him.

General Clark has traded in his suit for a beige sweater, and it works well for him. A guy with his military posture doesn’t need a suit to look formal, and the sweater makes him more approachable. His opening remarks started with some platitudes about Leadership, and I had to work to keep myself from tuning out. Then he said he wanted to talk about his values: Patriotism, Faith, Family, and Inclusivity. Near the beginning of the Patriotism segment he had all the veterans stand up and be applauded, an old John McCain move. And I thought: This is going to be painful – all platitudes and empty gestures.

It got better.

Patriotism. Clark said the right things about the War on Terror: He doesn’t think Bush did everything possible to prevent 9/11. After 9/11, Clark was for the invasion of Afghanistan, but he thought that American mistakes allowed Bin Laden to get away. The Iraq War was a distraction from the battle we should have been fighting against Al Qaeda; Saddam wasn’t an immediate threat. But now that we’ve overthrown Saddam, we can’t just leave Iraq without a government: “I’ll get us out of there the right way,” Clark promised, “and I won’t get us into any more messes like that.” It’s Dean’s position, basically. But I have to admit that it sounds more credible coming from Clark.

Clark uses his experience to set himself apart from President Bush and chicken hawks like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Sometimes he does it subtly: “Maybe it takes a guy who has been there on the ground to understand: You only use force as a very, very last – absolutely last – resort.” And sometimes he launches a zinger: “I don’t think patriotism is dressing up in a flight suit and prancing around the deck of an aircraft carrier.” You’ve got to be a 34-year veteran with four stars of rank, a silver star for valor, and a purple heart to get away with saying something like that. But if you’ve got them, it really works.

Faith. I’ve had the feeling for some time that in spite of the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons, the Republicans are vulnerable on religion if a Democrat can pitch it right. But it has been very frustrating to listen to Democrats try – until now. Clark pitched it right. Listen up, all you Democratic candidates high and low across the country. The message goes like this:

“Where I grew up in the South people talk a lot about religion. Early on, I picked up that lots of people can preach, but not everybody can live his faith. Now, in America today we’ve got one party – you know who they are – who talk about religion all the time. To listen to them, you’d think they get their marching orders straight from Heaven every morning. But all religions have one thing in common: If you are one of those people who are more fortunate and more favored in life, you should help people who are less fortunate and less favored. There’s only one party that really practices that, and it’s this party, the Democratic Party.”

They moralize; we help people. What more needs to be said?

Family. “When the Republicans talk about family values, they’re trying divide people. But I want to talk about the values you really need if you’re going to have a family.”

If you want to have a family, the first thing you need is a job. “There are nine million unemployed in America, and you can’t say you’re for families if you’re not trying to create jobs.”

The next thing a family needs is health care. Forty-four million Americans aren’t covered by health insurance. Like all the mainstream Democratic candidates, Clark stops short of a Canadian-style universal health plan, but wants to start by covering all children and making it easier for the working poor to buy insurance for themselves. The details vary from Edwards to Kerry to Dean to Clark, but they’re all close enough as to make no difference after it comes out of Congress. (I really want to see Bush explain in a debate why some children should not have health insurance.)

A family needs education. College tuition has gone up 28% during the Bush years, Clark claimed. “I don’t know many people whose income has gone up 28%, unless they’re working for Halliburton.” He wants to increase subsidies for people in their first two years of college. He criticized Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy. “I want to get the focus off of standardized testing. And we don’t want to be punishing schools when they don’t do well. We want to be fixing schools when they don’t do well.”

Finally, the environment is a legacy we pass on to our children. Environmental issues are family issues.

Inclusivity. Clark emphasized that the Army was one of the first American institutions to let minorities succeed, and said that he has worked hard for affirmative action in the military. He made a fairly impassioned plea for what America could achieve if all people were allowed to fully develop their abilities, but I didn’t get any of it down. I must have been applauding.

The Question Period

Civil liberties. Yes, I did ask General Clark my standard question about civil liberties. I said that President Bush believed he had the right to sign a piece of paper declaring an American citizen an “enemy combatant” and then imprison him indefinitely. I asked Clark if he would promise that as president he wouldn’t do that. He replied very directly: “I won’t do it. I think it’s unconstitutional. It’s wrong. And I’ll get all those guys out of Guantanamo too.” He meant the fighters we captured in Afghanistan who we have been interrogating in Guantanamo ever since. The Bush administration claims that these men have no legal status whatever, and so we can do whatever we please with them. Nobody had mentioned them; Clark just brought them up on his own. “I’ll try them in front of an international tribunal, and if they’re innocent I’ll let them go. If they’re guilty they’ll go to prison. But I won’t just leave them in Guantanamo.”

It’s the best answer I’ve gotten. It also tells you something about how Clark’s mind works. After he said “It’s unconstitutional” there was a short pause, where you could see him realize that he needed a moral word to balance his polysyllabic legal word. “It’s wrong,” he continued.

To another questioner he said that the Patriot Act needs to be re-examined top to bottom. He promised to fire John Ashcroft – an applause line that every candidate uses – and to have in-depth hearings about how the Patriot Act has been applied: how many searches and seizures have been done under the Act, what was gained from those searches, and so on. He implied that some kind of increased government investigative power may be necessary, but that the Patriot Act as written goes too far. “Law enforcement should have all the powers it needs to keep the public safe, but you can’t win the War on Terror by giving up the very rights we’re fighting to protect.”

Use of force. “Until we reach a much higher state of civilization, force will continue to be the ultimate arbiter of international relations.” And then he repeated his line about force being the “last, last, last” resort.

“You don’t win the War on Terror by dropping bombs and kicking people’s doors in. You may have to do that sometimes, but you don’t win that way. What wins the War on Terror is turning off the hatred.” He talked about Arab countries that are currently our allies – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan – where “humiliation is a fact of life” and people want to strike back at someone. That’s where the hatred is coming from, he claimed, not from Iraq.

Trade. A woman asked Clark to promise that he would not sign the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, a document currently under negotiation, whose purpose is to extend NAFTA to the rest of the hemisphere. He said that he wouldn’t sign the agreement as it stands. “Trade agreements should do more than protect corporations. They should also protect people and the environment.”

Howard. A questioner gave Clark an easy opening to attack Dr. Dean. She claimed to be a Vermont teacher (Keene is very close to Vermont), and Dean’s Act 60 raised her property taxes so much that she had to get a second job. (I think I’ve got the number right. I believe she was referring to Dean’s response to the Vermont Supreme Court’s demand that education spending be equalized across the state. New Hampshire is dealing with the same problem by sticking its head into the sand; our current governor ran on the platform of seeking a constitutional amendment that would allow us to ignore our supreme court’s ruling.) But, she claimed, in spite of the higher taxes education didn’t improve either in the district where she taught or the one where she lived. She said that Democratic candidates should hit harder on Dean’s record as governor, because the Republicans certainly would.

Clark’s answer made me take a little more seriously the platitude he started with, about “Leadership that tries to do what’s right for the future, and not just the next election.” After acknowledging the woman’s problem, Clark said: “I’m not looking at Howard Dean; I’m looking at George Bush.” I wish Gephardt, Kerry, and Lieberman had that kind of vision and integrity.

Cuteness. The second-to-last question came from a well-spoken blonde girl who looked to be about ten. She was embarrassed to admit that she didn’t really have a question, but she wanted to say this: “Before tonight, I only knew you from what my parents said and from signs. But now that I’ve seen you talk, I really believe that you’re going to be president.”

Clark may be in his first election campaign, but he showed the instincts of a true politician: “You’re coming to the White House!” he beamed. (See picture.)Clark smiling

Issues with the Clark Candidacy

There are some difficulties Clark has to overcome. He supported Reagan in the 1980’s, so how seriously should we take him as a Democrat now? Someone asked that question, and Clark said this: During the Cold War, he felt that America was in danger, so he voted for the candidate that was strongest on national defense. I think that is as good an answer as we’re going to get from him, and you either buy it or you don’t. He seems sincere in the liberal positions he is taking now.

There was some kind of issue about how he handled Kosovo, and why he was asked to leave his command early. It involves the Russians seizing an airport, and what Clark wanted to do about it. It sounds very political, and like the kind of thing that is hard to sort out, so I doubt it can be boiled down into a simple enough statement to do him harm in November. He takes pride in the Kosovo War, and says that we saved a million Albanians.

Some people on the left will have a hard time voting for any military man. Others will have a hard time voting for someone who has no direct experience in government. Clark defends this point by emphasizing that a base commander has to deal with all phases of life. Families live on bases, so you wind up having to run a school district and a hospital and a full slate of social services. He’s also been a teacher at West Point. And he says that he became a soldier because he wanted to serve his country during the Cold War, not because he wanted kill people. He sees his candidacy as another expression of his lifelong commitment to public service.

Sizing Up the General

The thing you can’t grasp until you see Clark in person is that he has star power. He’s not as pretty as John Edwards, and I usually think that all this politcal hand-shaking is silly. But I had a strange urge to shake Clark’s hand. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s some mystical thing they teach at West Point. And when he talks with pride about the peace agreement that came out of Kosovo – with Milosevic getting a fair and open trial before an international tribunal – he sounds (don’t laugh) like another famous military officer: Jean-Luc Picard.

As far as policy goes, I can’t find a significant difference between Dean and Clark. I’ve never thought Dean was as liberal as the media makes him out to be, but somehow Clark projects an image of being more in the middle of the road – maybe because he looks more comfortable talking about faith and military issues than Dean does.

In short, I find myself coming back to the original fantasy that people had when they were annointing Clark our savior back in September: He grounds liberal positions in centrist values. He’s a Rhodes scholar, but you don’t need to be a Rhodes scholar to understand him. I think he would look very good against George Bush in November, and I don’t think we have to compromise our principles to nominate him.

Lieberman and Gephardt supporters are all wet when they talk about their candidates’ “electability” as an advantage over Dr. Dean. The way for the Democrats to get seriously trounced in November, I believe, is to run a pro-war candidate. We can’t win the pro-war vote, and if the Democrats don’t offer an anti-war option, I think the Greens could double or triple Nader’s total from 2000. How many states could Lieberman or Gephardt carry under those conditions? But Clark’s electability is another matter. As a general, he’ll lose the pacifist vote to the Greens, but how big is that? Mainstream Democrats, and mainstream Americans of all stripes, may like the idea of a president who knows war well enough to realize that it should be a “last, last, last” resort.

The $64,000 Question

So, am I ready to renounce my identity as a card-carrying Deaniac?

I don’t know. Some people clearly are. The polls say that although Dean has a sizable lead, Clark is picking up support rapidly now, both in New Hampshire and across the country. Clark has become the clear second, the only candidate with a serious chance to catch Dean. As I left the high school Wednesday, I walked behind two sixty-something women, one of whom had clearly brought the other to hear the General. “I started out for Dean,” said the one, “and then I heard him.” The other woman nodded sympathetically and seemed lost in thought.

Recently, Dean has been the object of one of the most ridiculous waves of media criticism I’ve ever seen. The Doctor’s statement that Saddam’s capture makes us no safer was reported as a “gaffe”. But nobody has produced any evidence that he’s wrong. (That includes Joe Lieberman, who seems to think that indignation is a rational argument.) Ditto for his “gaffe” about giving Bin Laden a fair trial. (What do the other candidates want to do? Lynch him?) CNBC made a big deal out of the bi-level podium that kept Dean from being dwarfed by Bill Bradley, as if this raised some serious question about Dean’s integrity. A big part of the Clark “wave” is being manufactured by this kind of biased news coverage; I hate to become part of it.

And then I picture Clark debating Flightsuit George in October ...

We Democrats have two good candidates. That’s not a problem, and it’s no reason to feel sick.

But I think I need to see the Doctor again.

Doug Muder
9 January 2004

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