Dwight David Clark?: The General Enters the Fray

Andrew E. Busch

September 1, 2003

With the entry of former General Wesley Clark into the Democratic nomination race, a contest that had only recently begun to take shape was thrown into fresh turmoil. According to some polls, Clark immediately jumped to the front of the Democratic pack nationally (though not in Iowa or New Hampshire), and even pulled into a tie with President George W. Bush in a head-to-head matchup. Much of this surge was undoubtedly due to heavy—and generally positive—coverage in the major media surrounding his announcement, as well as the stale quality of the Democratic race to this point.

The General, indeed, has several strengths working for him. As a former commander of NATO, he brings a certain credibility to his discussion of national security. He is a fresh face, and comes from outside Congress. As the stalking horse for the Clintons, he inherits (perhaps borrows is a better term) much of their apparatus, not a small thing. It is not inconceivable that he could win the Democratic nomination.

Before he is anointed the next Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, it is worth examining in more detail the disadvantages he brings to this endeavor. Just as it is conceivable that he might win the Democratic nomination, it is also conceivable that he has already peaked (or will soon). Consider the following:

  • Clark is starting far behind all other viable candidates in fundraising and organization, with little time to catch up. His competitors for the Democratic nomination have been running for two years. It was once possible (and even expected) for candidates to start their campaigns late, sometimes even after the primaries had begun. As late as 1952, a candidate who had not bothered with the primaries (Adlai Stevenson) was drafted and nominated by his party’s convention. Candidates operate in a radically different environment today, one in which no winning candidate in recent memory has started so close to the beginning of the nominating season.
  • Clark’s claim to military fame is his direction of the successful but already-forgotten U.S. air war in Kosovo in 1999. In contrast, Eisenhower led Allied forces in their drive against Nazi Germany in World War II, literally rescuing the world from the specter of Hitlerism. Furthermore, Clark was ultimately forced into early retirement, and there is a high likelihood that the future will see a considerable line of former subordinates and superiors coming forth with testimonials that will call into serious question Clark’s military and political judgment. One British general has already indicated that he received orders from Clark that were so potentially disastrous—to parachute into a Kosovar airport to block Russian troops from occupying it—that he refused to comply. More recently, his military analysis of the Iraq war on CNN was frequently proven wrong within a matter of days or hours. In this, of course, he was hardly alone among analysts, but he is the only one of them running for president.
  • Clark also has yet to indicate that he can provide a clear and compelling message. He has staked much on his opposition to the Iraq war, but has already taken three contradictory positions on whether he would have voted for the congressional war authorization. He is on record effusively praising Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and the Bush foreign policy team before he decided to run for president as a Democrat. He is also on record saying he believed U.S. forces would find WMD in Iraq and praising Bush and Tony Blair for their courage in Iraq. His argument that Bush has made a mistake by targeting pro-terrorist regimes may win votes in a Democratic primary, but will be a serious vulnerability if he makes it to November 2004. What is the alternative? Leaving alone states that give terrorists safe havens, money, and training bases? Not least, Clark suffers the linguistic burden of having navigated the military bureaucracy for many years, and is prone to nearly unintelligible bursts of jargon.
  • Finally, his close ties with the Clintons are a two-edged sword, even among Democrats. In 2000, Al Gore considered Clinton so toxic that he barely acknowledged having known him. In 2004, Howard Dean has gained his considerable success by implicitly promising to reject the trimming and compromises of Clintonism. If Clark becomes perceived as a tool of the Clintons rather than just their friend—and he may be close to that point already—it is by no means clear he will gain rather than lose from the association.

Altogether, it is premature to declare Clark the great hope of Democrats. His Democratic opponents, who have worked hard for two years to put themselves in a position to compete for the presidency, are not going to go gently into the good night. Some who might hope to cultivate Clark as a vice-presidential running mate may take pains to avoid alienating him for awhile, but if he remains strong for very long, candidates like Howard Dean and Joseph Lieberman are not going to give him a free pass.

Andrew E. Busch is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.