It may ultimately be a good thing for Barack Obama that Wesley Clark stepped into such a mess when he discussed John McCain’s military service this week.
The background of the Clark flap is by now familiar: On CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday, the retired general said that “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president,” a comment that has been portrayed by the right – and by much of the media – as an effort to disparage McCain’s service.
While Obama quickly rebuked Clark, much of the left has rushed to the Clark’s defense, noting that he was merely responding to a question that was almost identically phrased and that he was only drawing a reasonable distinction between McCain’s military service and the experience needed to set U.S. foreign policy.
Clark’s defenders have a point, but in the bigger picture the details of the argument aren’t what’s important. The real significance of this week’s controversy – however unfair and unjust it is – is that it pretty much ensures that Clark won’t be on the Democratic ticket this fall, something that seemed a very real possibility beforehand. And Clark, almost certainly, would not have lived up to his potential as a running-mate.
That is the story of Clark’s political career, which began sometime in the early part of this decade, when he began toying with a 2004 presidential campaign. On paper, then as now, he seemed the perfect face for a Democratic Party whose leaders have all too often been caricatured by the right as national security weaklings, eager to appease aggressors and frightened of using force. What better antidote to this poisonous perception than an actual military general, a man who oversaw a successful war and Kosovo and who spent three years as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander?
Clark dawdled before finally plunging into the ’04 Democratic race, but his entry was still greeted enthusiastically by the party’s grassroots and by some key fund-raisers. He was instantly competitive in polling. The potential clearly existed for him to supplant Howard Dean, who was then the front-runner, by campaigning effectively as an anti-war Democrat who seemed likely to win over independent and Republican voters in the fall.
He failed miserably. His late start and Dean’s head start, along with his decision to write off the Iowa caucuses, can all be pegged as contributing factors in Clark’s ’04 demise. But the real explanation is simpler, though hard to define precisely: He did not make the right personal impression on voters.
Others have commented on his personality problem. When Clark jumped in the race in ’03, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen asked if he might be “too weird for prime-time.”
“Something about Clark makes people bristle,” wrote Cohen, who concluded that the general lacked in “warmth and affability” what he had in terms of intellect.
Other theories have been offered. Peggy Noonan, obviously not one to extend too many courtesies to Democrats but still an astute observer of personality, called Clark “a first-class strange-o,” arguing that his ambition and arrogance were too easily visible.
Whatever it was that turned voters off, Clark fell well short of expectations in 2004, eking out a win in the Oklahoma primary (he is from neighboring Arkansas) but winning nowhere else before dropping out.
My own theory is that Clark, unlike other military figures who have transitioned into politics (like Colin Powell), simply did not – and does not – carry himself in public in a way that is consistent with what most voters expect when they hear the title “General.” He is not physically imposing or intimidating, does not naturally assert control during interviews and in debates, and doesn’t seem to command any extra degree of respect of deference from his opponents or from questioners. Clark’s mere presence does not convey authority.
The problem is that this undercuts the value of his military background. The whole idea of running a retired general for office is to offer a reassuring figure to the masses. Powell, for instance, shed his military uniform in 1993, but was no less commanding a presence when he began venturing into politics in 1995 and 1996. The same is true of Jim Webb, who was never a general but who exudes the seriousness, purpose, and focus voters associate with military men.
Without his uniform, by contrast, Clark seems like just another politician struggling to stick to his talking points. When Democrats realized his average-ness in ’04, they jumped off the bandwagon, recognizing that his military credentials wouldn’t be worth nearly as much as they hoped in the fall.
But Clark, of course, still hungered for national office after the ’04 debacle, and worked hard to maintain his visibility in the aftermath of the election. Almost certainly, he would have run this year had Hillary Clinton, whom he supported, not done so. And not surprisingly, his lingering presence on the public stage has – once again – led some Democrats to fantasize about the value he might add to an Obama-led ticket. Seduced once again by his military title, they envisioned Clark as a powerful counterbalance to the G.O.P. attacks on Obama’s perceived national security inexperience.
In reality, there’s little reason to believe that the result would be a more positive one than ‘04 if Obama picked Clark. Just consider the reaction to his comments about McCain this week: His own military record hasn’t insulated Clark at all from efforts to portray him as just another anti-military MoveOn leftist. And why? Because it’s only too easy, upon watching Clark play a politician, to forget that he even has a military record.
For Obama, there is clear value in selecting a running mate who will offer reassurance to the public on national security. But Clark is, and always has been, the wrong person for that role. This week’s events, unfair though they may be, will simply exclude from the selection process a man who probably shouldn’t have been included in the first place.