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The Case for General Clark is the Weakness of the Case Against Him

I'm not totally ready to drink the Wesley Clark Kool-Aid, but every time I hear the banal Beltway arguments about why it's too late for him to run for president, or he'll never raise the money, or whatever, the obvious weakness of the arguments pushes me closer and closer to www.draftclark.com. Here's Walter Shapiro, USA Today's resident pundit, putting all the anti-Clark arguments into one:

USATODAY.com - Chance at presidency wanes the longer Clark waits

Retired Army general Wesley Clark first popped up on the political radar last October when he scooted up to New Hampshire to meet privately with Democratic activists in the first primary state. In late 2002, Clark also held closed-door meetings with leading Democratic fundraisers in New York. Even though the former NATO commander never explicitly admitted that he was a Democrat, let alone a presidential candidate, there were unmistakable hints that Clark had the White House bug.

Time passed, calendar pages turned, and still Clark dithered. Friends whispered that the retired four-star general did not want to do anything overtly political that might jeopardize his on-air role as a CNN military analyst during the Iraqi war. Then the statues toppled in Baghdad, George W. Bush made his tail-hook landing, the nine active Democratic contenders held their first televised debate in South Carolina — and Clark continued his mull-athon at elite events such as a recent meeting of the Aspen Institute in Colorado.

Now, nearly a year after that exploratory trip to New Hampshire, Clark has announced that he will make his decision about whether to enter the Democratic scrum by mid-September. This week Clark has been a familiar presence on TV talk shows and has conducted a series of magazine interviews for major articles that will grace the newsstands in the next week or so. His shadow campaign is boosted by two draft-Clark Web sites.

The only problem is that Clark, by all accounts, has yet to make up his mind.

This makes it seem like Clark was engaged in some Cuomo-like public melodrama about whether it is nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than fall back on speaking fees and Aspen Institute conferences. Perhaps he's driving his friends crazy with his indecision, but none of it has been public. And wasn't holding on to his on-air role at CNN a pretty good idea? It built his name recognition, honed his arguments, and above all, gave him hours of practice at one of the things a presidential candidate has to be comfortable doing. And this is a big deal: One reason candidates like Howard Dean can get trapped on Meet the Press is that, even in a twenty-year political career, they may have been on national television only a handful of times, hardly enough to really learn how to handle tough questions in sound-bite time, or to master the tone of the medium, which Clark seems to have done.

But, in all likelihood, Clark's year of indecision has sealed his political fate. It is fine for draft-Clark organizers to boast about the $1 million in pledges that they have collected over the Internet. But $1 million is chump change in presidential politics. Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who raised a paltry $3.1 million during the first half of the year, has demonstrated that there is a major difference between fundraising promises and cold hard campaign cash. For Clark to raise enough money to be competitive, he would have to devote the fall of 2003 to attending fundraisers while his rivals are campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire.

This is just obviously wrong. Clark might fall flat on his face, but if he plays it right, he is certainly one of those very few candidates -- Dean and John McCain are two of the others -- who can raise money in a flash without endless begging. The last million might take a lot of work, but the first $5 million or so -- if he generates excitement -- should be easy. The fact that some people in politics can do this drives the others absolutely bats. Dick Gephardt spends a year doing nothing but begging and cajoling insufferable wealthy boors to give him a little, and $4 million later it's called "disappointing," while a guy no one's ever heard of rakes in $10 million on the Internet! But life's not fair, and there's no way that General Clark is going to be on the Gephardt side.

Despite his confident TV mastery of foreign policy, Clark has rarely been questioned about domestic issues. By this point in the campaign, all his would-be rivals can rattle off detailed positions on hog lots, Medicare reimbursement formulas and unemployment insurance. Any fledgling presidential candidate inevitably faces a lengthy learning curve, and Clark's one-issue resume would seem limited if he faltered in his first debates.

I'll say this over and over again, but if "detailed positions on Medicaid reimbursement formulas" were the ticket to the White House, we'd be watching the Republicans scramble desperately to match the unbeatable Gore reelection drive. Being able to state clear and simple principles, not programs, is a great strengths, and if Clark can avoid getting dragged into the muck of the details, he will be able to stand toe-to-toe with Bush. (And I say this as someone who likes getting drawn into questions like Medicaid reimbursement rates.)

The most persuasive argument against a Clark presidential bid is his own ambition for future national service. With a new book on modern warfare (written after the fall of Baghdad) coming out in October, Clark has already positioned himself to be seriously considered for the vice presidency or Defense secretary in a Democratic administration. But the odds on such a selection would plummet if Clark were, say, to limp home with an embarrassing sixth-place finish in New Hampshire.

Hello? Far from the "most persuasive argument," this is actually the silliest. History forgives failed presidential candidates. A complete embarassment in New Hampshire didn't prevent Senator Ed Muskie from being Secretary of State in the very next administration, or for that matter, his horrid 1988 campaign did not prevent Al Gore from being the Vice Presidential nominee four years later.

As Dean has shown, the best way for an outsider to prove his readiness for prime-time politics is to run for the White House with unflagging determination. By waiting a year for the stars to properly align themselves, Clark has seemingly squandered his star-power with his ordeal of indecision.

It doesn't seem like an ordeal to me, but the perfect moment. We are all just beginning to accept that none of the Democratic presidential candidates seems to have much appeal except Dean, and Dean has some real weaknesses. If Clark wants to do it, now is as good a time as any.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 2, 2003 | Permalink


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