It’s not that Wesley Clark’s decision to endorse Hillary Clinton is bad news for the former First Lady.
The retired general and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander is popular with a segment of the Democratic base, and being able to claim support from such a decorated military man can only help her considerable efforts to prove she has the “toughness” to be president, whatever that means.
But the value of Mr. Clark’s endorsement, which was announced last weekend and heralded by the Clinton campaign as a major development, falls far short of the standard established by Mrs. Clinton’s husband when he snagged his own surprise military endorsement back in his first presidential campaign.
In the early fall of 1992, Bill Clinton held a solid and consistent lead in polls over President George H.W. Bush, a tribute to the Arkansas governor’s masterful exploitation of the country’s domestic economic woes—and an indictment of Mr. Bush’s tone-deaf response.
But as restless as voters were, Mr. Clinton remained vulnerable to doubts about his ability to lead the country in the event of an international crisis. This was the one area of undisputed strength for Mr. Bush, who had overseen the triumphant Persian Gulf War, after which his popularity soared to 90 percent.
Mr. Clinton, meanwhile, was an untested 46-year-old who’d run a small southern state. Nor did it help that his own maneuverings to avoid service in Vietnam had become front-page news earlier in the campaign, an unfortunate contrast to the World War II-combat heroics of Mr. Bush.
Enter Admiral William J. Crowe, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1985 until 1989, who, seemingly out of nowhere, offered his endorsement to Mr. Clinton in late September. The 67-year-old Mr. Crowe’s military credentials were impeccable, and it had always been assumed that he was a Republican: He’d been appointed and reappointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs by Ronald Reagan, and President Bush had offered to extend his tenure in 1989, although Mr. Crowe declined and retired from the Navy a year later.
His decision to back Mr. Clinton marked his first-ever foray into electoral politics and caused precisely the splash the Clinton campaign had hoped for. The retired admiral was flown to Little Rock, where photographers and network news videographers recorded images of him strolling and conversing intently with Governor Clinton, powerful visual reassurance that the campaign very much needed. (Mr. Crowe was ultimately rewarded with a three-year run as the ambassador to the United Kingdom during Mr. Clinton’s first term.)
Hillary Clinton would stand to benefit similarly from the endorsement of a Crowe-like figure. Wesley Clark, though, doesn’t fit the mold—and given the timing of the endorsement announcement, the Clinton campaign knows this.
The problem is that Mr. Clark already tried—and failed—to cash in on the political value of his military pedigree. On paper, he seemed precisely the candidate Democrats could rally around in 2004, given the challenge of unseating a wartime Republican president. But Mr. Clark flopped as a Democratic primary candidate, struggling to develop and communicate a compelling theme, shrinking in debates, and even falling prey to some of the right-wing caricaturing that the title “general” was supposed to immunize him against. He won one primary—by a tiny margin and when it barely mattered—and emerged from the campaign not as a unifying national leader but as an almost polarizing voice of a segment of the Democratic Party.