Clark: Howard Dean can't win

Wesley Clark says Dean lacks national security credibility -- and throws cold water on the idea of a Dean-Clark dream ticket. But after Saddam Hussein's capture, will his own war-critic stance work against him?

By Josh Benson
Published December 16, 2003 12:38AM (EST)

With the presidential campaign of Howard Dean building strong momentum even before the primary elections, the idea has returned to fashion in Democratic political circles that retired Gen. Wesley Clark is in the race primarily to become Dean's running mate. As a hypothetical scenario, it makes good sense: Dean is a charismatic former governor from New England with strong progressive backing, but he lacks foreign policy experience; Clark is an accomplished warrior who has negotiated on behalf of America and its allies at the highest international levels, and he is expected to have strong appeal in more conservative Southern and Western states.

And so, the thinking goes, Howard Dean and Wes Clark would make a Democratic dream date in November 2004.

But just 48 hours before before the capture of Saddam Hussein outside of Tikrit, Clark made his strongest statement to date about why a Dean-Clark ticket is a bad idea. Clark, who says that he's uniquely qualified to go "toe-to-toe" with President Bush on security issues in 2004, said that whether he's on the ticket or not, the Democrats can't win with Dean as their presidential candidate.

"I don't think the Democratic Party can win without carrying a heavy experience in national security affairs into the campaign," he told Salon in a phone interview last week. "And that experience can't be in a vice president."

Asked if he was referring specifically to the much-discussed possibility of a Dean-Clark ticket, he said: "It's no substitute. It won't work, and it won't carry the election for this party."

It was an unusually blunt evaluation of his main Democratic foe, and of the party's chances next year.

Contacted about Clark's comments, Dean campaign spokesman Steve McMahon offered only a brief response: "We think that will be up to the voters to decide."

Although it is too soon to measure fully the political impact of Saddam Hussein's capture on the presidential race, it certainly hands a huge victory to Bush, who had been the target of mounting criticism over the rising number of American casualties and the failure of coalition forces to find the Iraqi dictator.

Among Democratic contenders, Sens. Joe Lieberman, John Kerry and John Edwards and former Rep. Richard Gephardt all voted for the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to wage war against Saddam, and on Sunday, some of them reacted to his capture sounding vindicated -- and ready to bash Dean for opposing the war so stridently. Lieberman, whose candidacy suffered enormously for his consistent defense of the war, said: "If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, not in prison, and the world would be a more dangerous place."

Dean largely avoided discussion of the political impact of the development, saying, "President George Bush deserves a day of celebration. We have our policy differences but we won't be discussing those today."

But Clark's case may be the most complicated of all. Shortly after launching his campaign, he said that he "probably" would have voted for the resolution authorizing the president to go to war in Iraq. He later called that statement a mistake, and said he had consistently opposed the war since well before it was actually launched. Earlier this week, he lamented the fact that American soldiers were dying in a cause that he termed "ridiculous."

Clark, who was in The Hague to testify against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic when news of Saddam's capture broke, released a statement that he "could not be prouder" of the armed forces for their accomplishment. A senior advisor to Clark said the capture only served to underscore Clark's point about the potential weakness of any nominee without national security qualifications. "It's a further example of why the Democrats need a candidate with foreign policy and national security experience," said the advisor. "This is a success, whether or not the war is ultimately successful, and it only makes it more likely that Bush will be able to run as a wartime president." But if the capture means the end of the guerrilla resistance against the American occupation, and Bush gets to run as the commander in chief who toppled Saddam, Clark could suffer as much as Dean for his wartime criticism of the president.

Whatever the ultimate impact of the spectacular arrest, Clark's own military qualifications have not yet put him in the commanding position among the Democratic candidates that his supporters had hoped he'd occupy at this point. Indeed, the very fact that the V.P. issue is such a persistent one for Wesley Clark illustrates the challenging position he's in. His candidacy is a mass of potential: He has an unsurpassed résumé, is an accomplished and recognizable television commentator, and he has the blessing -- unofficially, of course -- of the Clintons. Yet because of a late entry into the race, a rough beginning to his campaign, and now, the ascendance of Howard Dean as a solid favorite, the onus is on Clark to improve his performance dramatically enough to contend for something other than a place on someone else's ticket. And with a crowded schedule of primaries, he could face a challenge just to survive long enough to remain competitive in the critical contests of February and March.

Over the course of a week of campaigning in Florida, New Hampshire and New York, Clark demonstrated beyond a doubt that he is a better candidate now than he was three months ago, when he launched his first-ever political run. After a stumbling start, the former general has punched up his stump speech, developed a coherent domestic agenda to go with his foreign policy experience, and learned to answer questions from the media without shooting himself in the foot.

At the same time, though, whatever progress Clark has made seems to be overshadowed at every turn by the front-running Dean. In the past week, for example, which was intended to showcase his policy prescriptions for education, child poverty, the environment and public education, Clark found himself after each announcement answering questions about Dean's strength in the polls, his unequalled campaign war chest and, of course, his endorsement on Dec. 9 by former Vice President Al Gore. ("I don't like to talk about endorsements," Clark has taken to answering, "unless they're for me.")

What he does like to talk about is the single biggest attribute that may still allow him to be a factor in this race: his experience. More than any other Democratic candidate, Clark is running less on specific ideas than on his own qualifications, and the capabilities he says they give him for leading in a time of crisis.

Asked to name specific policy differences as opposed to the other candidates, he insisted that his experience is difference enough.

"The experience is the critical thing," he said. "When I'm working the policy, I know what it means. When they're saying it, they're just saying the words. It's the difference between describing a fastball and throwing a fastball. We're in a major-league struggle in Iraq, thanks to the Bush administration, and you need a major-league player to get us out of it."

That experience, as he and his supporters contend, is what makes Clark uniquely electable against George W. Bush in 2004, and he returns to the theme at every opportunity. Speaking by cellphone as he drove from the Little Rock airport to his Arkansas home, he criticized Dean for an answer he gave at the Democratic debate in New Hampshire on Dec. 9 to a question about whether it was ever acceptable for a president to lie to the American public. (Dean, who was clearly taken aback by the question, had answered: "I can't think of any circumstances, with the possible exception of some national security matter that would -- if some piece of information were put out that would endanger American lives or some circumstances under which people's lives would be in danger or something of that sort.")

"I don't believe you should lie in foreign affairs," Clark said. "You can't lie as a government. You can refuse to answer a question. You can go to the press privately and say please don't print this for national security reasons. You cannot lie.

"The experience is everything," he continued. "Foreign affairs constantly involve judgments about the unanticipated, and you draw on a background of knowledge and experience and attitude. At this time in our nation's history it's not as simple as a three-point bullet plan."

In theory, Clark's biography would seem to give him a significant leg up -- boy from modest background in Arkansas goes to West Point and Oxford and becomes a war hero -- especially in the context of challenging Howard Dean, who rarely mentions his upbringing on Park Avenue and who spent the Vietnam War skiing in Aspen.

But in practice, at least until now, being Wesley Clark hasn't been quite enough. Shortly after a hyper-publicized late entry into the race in September, some national polls showed Clark doing so well that he referred to himself in public as "the front-runner." But his early struggles dealing with reporters, including a monumentally disastrous encounter on a charter plane with the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, put a damper on his initial momentum. And his late start has continued to plague him, putting him at a tremendous organizational and fundraising disadvantage to his rivals.

Clark acknowledges his bad start, but says that he has made progress since then as a candidate. "It's a funny thing," he said. "It's a lot of talking and listening and you just get better at articulating your issues, and at making more brief, punchy statements. You get more comfortable ... It's a gradual thing. People tell me, 'You're much better than you were at the beginning.' I don't know if it's that I'm more comfortable in this role or whether I've just learned things."

Whatever improvements he's made, it will take quite a bit of doing to get into a competitive position with Dean. The Clark comeback scenario goes something like this: Since he is not competing in the labor-intensive Iowa caucusing process for lack of time and resources, he will be counting on a stronger-than-expected finish -- like second place or a strong third -- in the New Hampshire primary. That would likely make him a focal point in the ensuing crush of media attention.

This, in turn, could help him to do well in the next round of voting in states like South Carolina and Oklahoma, where his Southern upbringing and military credentials could be a big help. After that, goes the scenario, Clark could be the last candidate left standing between Dean and the nomination, prompting anti-Dean establishment supporters and conservative Democratic voters to rally to his flag.

Obviously, there are all sorts of factors that would have to fall into place for events to play out this way. But Clark has several important things going for him. Although he doesn't have much cash on hand -- he only has a fraction of what John Kerry has, for example -- he has shown an impressive capacity for raising cash in a hurry, as he recently did with a fancy, million-dollar fundraiser in Manhattan on Dec. 10. He has genuine grass-roots support in evidence many places he goes, unlike any of the other major candidates (except, of course, Dean). A recent poll of likely Democratic and independent voters in New Hampshire gave the Clark camp reason for encouragement, showing him gaining on John Kerry for the coveted second-place spot there.

He has attracted some important institutional support, as demonstrated at a Dec. 11 event in Harlem organized by Democratic U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel and attended by an array of prominent minority elected officials and African-American war veterans. (Being that Rangel had made an endorsement of the general weeks earlier, one major purpose of the event seemed to be to downplay the significance of the Gore endorsement of Dean that took place in Harlem earlier that week, and to draw attention to the perceived weakness of Dean's support among black voters.) In addition, the campaign has just announced the endorsement of civil rights leader Andrew Young, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former Atlanta mayor.

And, as aides frequently point out, Clark has an endorsement of sorts from Bill Clinton, who reportedly referred to Clark as a "rising star" in the Democratic Party. Given Clinton's popularity within the party, even the perception that he is behind Clark can be a great advantage. (Clark frequently praises both Bill and Hillary Clinton, and told reporters in New Hampshire that he talked to the former president as recently as the Gore-Dean endorsement. But he downplays their connections dating back to their days in Arkansas for fear of "Clinton stalking horse" conspiracy theories.)

He is also the only major candidate besides Dean to demonstrate a consistent ability to attract grass-roots support. According to campaign spokesman Matt Bennett, Clark has doubled the number of his online supporters in the three months he has been a candidate, and the traffic to his Web site is now on a par with Dean's. In addition, there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence that Clark has developed an ability to turn out the bodies for his appearances, whether at the Florida Democratic convention in Orlando -- where an unscientific survey of placards and pins put Clark second only to Dean in supporters -- or an appearance at an out-of-the-way radio station in Dover, N.H., where a spirited crowd of volunteers from Arkansas stood outside in the snow to encourage the general with the famous "Whooh Pig Sooie!" cheer from the University of Arkansas.

But no matter what signs there are for encouragement, it will be the Clark campaign's challenge for the next two months just to remain viable, with the chance of contending with Dean down the stretch.

"I think everybody other than Dean has a strategy to be the last man standing with him," said Democratic consultant Howard Wolfson. "I think Clark's strategy, skipping Iowa, trying to finish second in New Hampshire and then use that to propel him to actual victories in states where he might be stronger, on Feb. 3 -- makes the most sense for him given his late start and difficulty organizing."

Grand tactics and strategy aside, the weeks leading up to the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary will require Clark to appeal to voters with an intense schedule of retail campaigning and to continue cultivating his lucrative relationships with the heavyweight Democratic donors in Hollywood and New York who have made him the second-most formidable fundraiser in the field.

Most recently, a Dec. 11 event at the Grand Hyatt in midtown Manhattan netted the campaign the Bush-like total of $1 million. Addressing his audience, he demonstrated his ramped-up stump speech, rousing the wealthy, distinctly non-military crowd to a series of standing ovations with a combination of Dean-style anti-administration rhetoric and unapologetic patriotism.

"They are trying to take our patriotism away from us," he said, pointing to an illuminated stars-and-stripes behind him that looked to be at least three Clarks in height. "They are trying to say that this flag belongs to Tom DeLay and John Ashcroft and George W. Bush, and it's not true. And on my watch, as long as I'm in this race, they will never get this flag, because I've saluted, I've fought for it, I served under it."

Along with his increasingly heated rhetorical style, Clark has shown the ability to connect with crowds in more intimate settings. This was the case over the course of a three-day campaign swing through New Hampshire, particularly when Clark strayed from the text of his domestic policy pronouncements -- his experienced policy staff writes them, he reads them -- to talk with some emotion about his personal experiences.

As a human expression of the hardships of war, Clark frequently tells the story these days about a recent meeting he had with the kindergarten-aged son of a soldier wounded in Iraq. "He didn't know who I was," said Clark at an event in a school library in New Castle, N.H. "He just knew I had something to do with the military, and had some connection to his father. And he grabbed my hand, and he just wouldn't let go of it."

For all his stylistic adjustments, though, there remain signs that his candidacy is still green and, at times, awkward. When he was introduced a week ago at the Florida Democratic convention, for example, he took several minutes to wend his way up to the ballroom stage, accompanied by a bagpiper playing "Scotland the Brave." When he finally got there, his first words into the microphone were, "Delighted to be here. How does this work?" Eventually, the state party chairman had to step in and tell Clark's supporters, somewhat pointedly, to move away from the stage "so we can get a clean television shot of your candidate."

When Clark spoke, he hit all his main points -- an injustice was done in Florida in 2000; the war in Iraq was wrong; President Bush is "incredibly lacking" in judgment -- but he also digressed, and then digressed from his digressions, speaking for a total of 45 minutes.

And then there are the little things. Later that week, at a morning meet-and-greet event at a law firm in Portsmouth, N.H., that regularly has candidates in to address its employees, Clark lost at least one vote when he failed to thank one of his hosts for the invitation and for breakfast. "Everyone else we had in here at least said 'thank you,'" she said to a couple of reporters lingering over the leftover bagels and Danish. "I don't care who you are. That's just rude."

He still has trouble with punch lines, as he did when attempting to deliver a zinger about Al Gore at the Durham debate. "Just to quote another former Democratic leader, I think elections are about the people, not about the powerful," Clark said, only to be greeted with an uncomfortable silence in the auditorium and groans in the press room next door.

But the way Clark sees it, the campaign is now ready for battle, and the early campaign hiccups are behind him. "I think that stuff is pretty much in the past now," he said in the interview.

And in an expression of his newcomer's optimism -- or perhaps of a military man's fighting spirit -- he still envisions his own name at the top of the ticket and a big victory for the Democrats next year. "I think we're really getting a lot of traction at retail political level," he said. "The money's coming in at a really good clip, and we feel very confident about the result ... We're converting people everywhere we go."

Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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2004 Elections Bill Clinton George W. Bush Howard Dean Iraq War