CLARK VS DEAN
Will TFM jump ship?
answer: no, or at least not yet
This campaign for the Democratic nomination for president is going to end up being a two-horse race. Dean is one horse, and a revolving door of old news and also rans have failed to position themselves as the other. This could change with the entry of Wesley Clark.
I'll start any discussion of a new candidate the way I always do: by invoking Star Trek. (okay, I already did that last night)
In a comment thread, somewhere or other, a couple weeks ago, someone made an interesting comparison:
Gen. Clark *is* Captain Picard. To wit:
-Picard finished first at the Academy, Clark finished first at West Point
-Picard is antiwar when he can be, a hawk when he needs to be
-Picard is a diplomat, Clark is a diplomat
-Picard and Clark are both good at rapelling down cliffs
-Picard and Clark are both warrior-intellectuals
-Picard uses transporters, Clark uses electric motors
Okay, so it kinda peters out at the end. Now let's get somewhat serious.
Wesley Clark's position roughly mirrors that of Bill Clinton twelve years ago, when he was a relatively late entrant into the 92 presidential campaign. The thing is, Clark has an advantage over Clinton's 91 position, because of the draft campaign; that gives him an automatic campaign infrastructure, at least online it does. His respectable meetup numbers (over ten thousand) help the word-of-mouth element go beyond the media buzz, of which there's plenty anyway.
Is Clark the anti-Dean? Well, yes and no. Yes, he's a guy who isn't Dean and is very electable, and plus has the military record to magnificently trump Dubya. But no, he is not a Lieberman-style issue opponent. Dean and Clark's respective political views are about 95% identical (in fact, Clark may be to Dean's left on gun control). This means that most of the real differences between Dean and Clark amount to packaging. Clark is a Southerner* with 34 years of military experience under his belt, plus four stars and numerous other accolades to show for it. Voters who are skittish about Dean because of the perception
that Dean would be soft on defense would obviously have a lot to like in the general.
The most significant way that Clark could be characterized as the anti-Dean is revealed in how long the general waited to launch his campaign. I'm willing, when all is said and done, to give Clark a pass on waiting so long, and not to say that his delay shows that he's too indecisive and iffy to really be president, let alone strongly desire to be president. There is a more logical reason: Clark waited long enough, to the point where he could be viewed as the unquestioned establishment alternative, the guy who could "save the party" from Dean, who some people, like this guy
, compare to the party's 1972 anti-war flop candidate, George McGovern. (TFM does not see the parallel) The problem? The party's grassroots have been flocking to Dean for months, and the doctor/governor has built quite an army of his own; the Dean campaign has just passed 400,000 members
. This puts Clark in a strange position; having relatively equivalent positions to Dean, yet running a campaign against
a significant proportion of the party's grassroots element. Doing that may or may not get Clark the nomination, but what will doing that do for the soul of the Democratic party?
On the other hand, if Clark loses out in the primaries, to Dean in particular, how could that be interpreted? Ponder: a number of the people who have joined Clark's campaign team are veterans of the Clinton administration. The Big Dog
himself has nothing but good things to say about Clark, including this in late June:
"He has always exceeded in every endeavor," Clinton told The Associated Press on Friday, noting in particular Clark's major role as NATO commander, when he ran the 1999 Kosovo air war that drove Serb forces out of the embattled Serbian province.
"While I cannot take sides in the Democratic primary, I believe Wes, if he runs, would make a valuable contribution because he understands America's security challenges and domestic priorities," Clinton said. "I believe he would make a good president."
Some might consider that to be a virtual endorsement. There are rumors that Hillary may join his campaign staff, or perhaps even be his running mate down the line. (okay, so most of the rumors circulating around the latter come from the Limbaugh/Scaife/Coulter set.) So, given the close association between Clark and the Clinton crew, if Clark loses (regardless of the conduct of his campaign vis-a-vis Dean), would his loss be spun as some sort of negative verdict on the Clinton years? The right-wing media would never
do anything like that, would they? And the usual-suspect mainstream media whores -- Chris Matthews, Bill O'Reilly, the 2 Howards (Kurtz, Fineman), even maybe Maureen Dowd -- they would never
drink that sort of Kool Aid, right? Right??
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Ultimately, my choosing between Clark and Dean doesn't have much to do with Clintonite/establishment versus outsider/insurgent. It's the unprecedented way that Dean has energized the base of the party, reached out to them, and let them have so much input in the campaign itself. In the comments to one of his own posts, Kos wrote
I think any of the top candidates can (and will) take out Bush. But Dean is building something more than a political campaign -- he is building a mass movement like no other in US political history. It's exciting to be a part of it, no doubt. There are no historical parallels.
I really got a sense of that when I saw him speak in SF. I really see that in how Dean has truly nationalized his campaign, when most of his rivals are narrowly fixating on just the early primary states. I love the audacity of challenging supporters to match the fundraising prowress of pResident Bush and Vice pResident Defrib.
I want solid candidates in this campaign, and with that in mind, I hope that Wesley Clark learns from everything that Dean has done so far. He needs to convey a message and an attitude that is appealing to the same grassroots that loves Dean. No matter what, a candidate cannot win without energizing the party's base; just ask Walter Mondale and George H. W. Bush.
Another simple truth is this: he needs to go after Bush with the same fire and consistency shown by Dean (and Gephardt, in recent weeks). If he goes hard on the other candidates while going soft on Dubya, and ends up winning the nomination, there will be a lot of Dean supporters that are going to have a bone to pick with Clark. We, as Democrats, need to come out of this nomination process united. Love him or loathe him, Howard Dean has created an unprecedented grassroots following, and to squander that energy of that following for the sake of vicious below-the-belt dishonest attacks would be a very foolish choice for Clark. If Wesley Clark's campaign takes on a Lieberman-esque tone (tone, not policy), then that spells trouble for him, or for the party if he's nominated.
(on that note, I'd love to see Wesley really hammer Bush on the AWOL thing. if nothing else, that would be schweeet
Dean was elected Governor of Vermont 5 times, serving a total of 12 years. Clark has never been elected to anything. By saying that, I do not mean that Clark's abilities as a leader and administrator are in question; he's a 4-star general, and they do plenty of that. However, Clark's abilities as a campaigner
are not yet known. How will he handle Rove, Rush, and the Mighty Wurlitzer? When someone goes after him, whether he/she be a fellow Democratic candidate or a right-wing scandal monger, then shall we discover if Clark truly is the dream candidate some make him out to be. Aided by former Clinton staffers, will he use their technique and deploy rapid responses to such attacks? (Dean's campaign is quite good at this) Will he not come off as angry, short, and/or abrasive? When disinformation is spread, how well will Clark be able to regain control of the debate and set the record straight? That was a problem for Al Gore in 2000, who let the media run wild with the nonsense "liar" label. The next few weeks will be very, very instructive.
My overall hope, one that should be the wet dream of just about every Democrat in the country, is for Dean and Clark to keep it relatively civil, to the extent that maybe, just maybe, the nominee would ask the other to be his running mate. If I were Howard Dean, Democratic nominee, I'd just loooove
the idea of a hard-nosed 4-star general making mincemeat out of Chickenhawk Cheney in the veep debate. And if I were Wesley Clark, Democratic nominee, I would love to be able to welcome Dean and his legions of fans into the fold.
As of this moment? I'm still a Deanista. The man from Vermont hasn't done a single thing to make my faith in him waver the slightest bit. The way I see it, only two things could really change my mind:
1) If Dean says anything really, really
stupid. The media has likened him to McCain (well, the media is short on storylines), so they're waiting for the plain-spoken insurgent candidate to slip up. He hasn't yet, though, and I'm not sure he ever will. Of course, saying stupid things wasn't a roadblock to Bush getting to the White House, but we Dems hold our candidates to a higher standard.
2) If Clark catches fire in a serious way in the coming month or two, while simultaneously reaching out to the grassroots of the party, and keeping it civil with Dean.
My predictions? Clark's candidacy will spell big trouble for Kerry, Edwards and Graham, not to mention Lieberman, who has some leftover Clinton/Gore support. Gephardt will be out after Iowa, and Kerry will be gone after New Hampshire (Dean wins both), setting up a two-horse race between Dean and Clark. And I have absolutely no idea which one will be giving the acceptance speech in Boston come next summer.
Good luck to General Clark, and may the best person win.
* - I don't particularly subscribe to the so-called "southern strategy", I think the right candidate could come from anywhere, whatever the evidence may be.