Political Surrender

The Democratic nomination was Wes Clark’s to lose. And, boy, did he lose it.


When Gen. Wesley Clark entered the Democratic nomination race
last September, he shot to the top of the polls. Here was a guy with looks, brains, Southern appeal, and a gold-plated resume, who could take the fight to George W. Bush on national security and foreign policy — and win.

But the general never took off. He was a lackluster debater, a uninspiring speaker, and a political naif, and he even undermined his one clear natural advantage by flip-flopping on the Iraq war. He won one primary of the 14 he contested. And now he’s gone. (Clark fans will just have to face it: he’s taking the “Wes” out of Wisconsin.)

Clark’s departure from the race was no big surprise; he started messing up almost as soon as he entered the race. (It’s never a good sign when reporters on a presidential candidate’s press bus start joking that the new campaign song should be Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” (“down, down down …”), Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” (“I thought of quittin’, baby, but my heart just ain’t gonna buy it”), or Beck’s “Loser.”—as Clark’s did this week). But rarely has a political campaign failed so completely to live up to its early promise.

What went wrong? It wasn’t money. Clark raised between $10-$12 million in the fourth quarter alone, more than everyone but Dean; and it wasn’t necessarily bad management — his team was packed with old Clinton hands; and it wasn’t that liberals were cool too him — even Michael Moore (Oh, wait, maybe that was part of the problem.)

Howard Kurtz thinks that Clark’s campaign ebbed in proportion as Kerry’s surged. Once Kerry rallied, Clark’s shot at the slot for a candidate with military credentials closed:

“But here’s a point the press has largely overlooked. With John Kerry seemingly moribund, there was space in the race (at least theoretically) for a military man who would challenge George Bush on national security. Once Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, surged, the space for Clark shrunk dramatically. He skipped Iowa, got buried in New Hampshire and never really recovered.”

Jonathan V. Last of the Weekly Standard says that Clark’s problem was he didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, and that he overplayed the military card:

“While Clark favored rote repetition with topics he didn’t understand, he had a tendency to freelance when he was comfortable with the subject. One night in New Hampshire, he told an audience, “We’re going to go to the Saudis and the Pakistanis and we’re going to end the hatred, the invective, the funding, the madrassas, and help change those regimes in the Middle East.”

The only subject on which Clark demonstrated complete mastery was his own resume. It was his touchstone. Never content to let his accomplishments speak for themselves, Clark spoke for them. At every opportunity.”

Clark has a different theory of why he lost; he says his big mistake was skipping Iowa. After what would be his final speech as a candidate, in Memphis, a supporter told the general he should have run in Iowa. “Yeah, I wish we had, too,” Clark replied. “Everything would have been different if we had.”

And maybe its true. Kerry’s arguably unstoppable momentum started in Iowa. Perhaps Clark believes that could have been him.

But at the time, Clark’s campaign strategized that his late entrance into the race made Iowa unwinnable because the other candidates had already built up a base of Iowan support. In fact, Clark was banking on another candidate winning Iowa: Howard Dean. Aides to Clark say that Kerry’s unexpected showing in Iowa caught them unprepared. One aide said: “When we saw Kerry coming at us in New Hampshire instead of Dean, we just panicked.”

Some are glad to see Clark go. Andrew Sullivan says the very thought of Clark as the Democratic nominee, and possible future president, scared him:

“We can all now heave a huge sigh of relief. The man had no political experience, had been on every side of a critical issue (the war against Saddam), believed in preposterous conspiracy theories, and backed any left-liberal cause regardless of his previous positions. The sole rationale for his candidacy was his military record – a record which ended in his being fired for being unstable in the Kosovo war. But what amazed me even more was how many otherwise sane Democrats seemed to take him seriously. “You’re really scared, aren’t you? I can see it” was the refrain from many liberal friends. Yes, I was scared. Not that he was a formidable figure bestriding the political scene like a colossus. But that he was a nut-case who had a shot at becoming the nominee of a serious political party. Now he can go back to what he was planning all along: raking in the usual lobbyist dough. See you at the Palm, Wes.”

The question now is, What’s next for Clark? Some pundits speculate that a vice president position may be in the works, though Clark (inevitably) disclaims any interest.

It’s more likely that he’ll stump for the Democratic party in Southern states and swing House districts, where his credibility on national security may be needed. Aides said: “[Clark will] discuss how he will continue to fight on behalf of the Democratic Party. Specifically, Clark will focus on the need to stand up to George W. Bush on national security and take back faith, patriotism and values for the Democratic Party.”

This may be the best role for Clark. His strengths as a presidential candidate—his authority on military issues and national security—may be best put to use as a “proxy,” attacking Bush and talking up Kerry, who now seems all but guaranteed the nomination.

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