"Get moving"

Wes Clark talks about cleaning up the mess in Iraq and says Democrats better start convincing Americans that they can keep our country safe.

Published June 20, 2005 7:53PM (EDT)

Wes Clark all but admits that he wasn't ready when he was drafted to run for president in 2004. Anyone who saw Clark only at the end of his campaign would have found it hard to imagine what he was like when it started. At the Democratic National Convention in Boston, where John Kerry received the nomination, Clark lit up a roomful of veterans with an incendiary speech on what it means to be both a Democrat and a patriot. "That flag is our flag," Clark said as applause swelled up and eyes grew teary. "We served under that flag. We got up and stood reveille formation, we stood taps, we fought under that flag. We've seen men die for that flag, and we've seen men buried under that flag. No Dick Cheney or John Ashcroft or Tom DeLay is going to take that flag away from us."

But roll back the tape to 10 months before that, and Clark looked like a different guy. The Vietnam war hero, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, the man who'd calmly explained each step in the Iraq war night after night after night on CNN -- that man was so flummoxed by the simple and entirely predictable question of whether he would have voted for the resolution that authorized George W. Bush to use military force in Iraq that he ended up flip-flopping on his position and begging for help from a press aide.

When Salon spoke with Clark by telephone last week, he wouldn't say whether he'll run again in 2008, but he said he'll be ready this time if he does.

He has a Web site and a political action committee and consultants and booking people and a seemingly endless schedule of things that look an awful lot like campaign appearances. He says he'll be "formulating and speaking and acting" until the time comes to make a decision about his presidential plans.

But for all that, Clark says that the success of any Democrat in 2008 will depend as much on the Democratic Party as on the candidate it runs. The party has "deep construction" to do before Americans will trust Democrats to keep them safe, Clark says, and the time to begin that work is now.

"It can't be done in the heat of a political campaign," Clark says, "and it's not about a candidate. It's really about a party, and I think it requires an array of voices over a sustained period of time whose views can be assessed and measured against events."

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that for the first time since before 9/11, Americans trust Democrats more than Republicans in coping with the main problems the nation will face over the next few years. To the extent that national security and terrorism are part of that answer, is this an important turning point for the Democratic Party?

I think it's an important yardstick, but I'd beware of "turning points."

We know what public opinion polls do and don't do. What we're talking about is needing to establish a full-service Democratic Party that is able to take care of healthcare, education, employment issues, retirement issues, diversity issues -- we've always been trusted on that -- but that can also set a long-term vision for America and guide our foreign relations, our security policies, and keep us safe. One opinion poll is welcome, but we know we've got a lot of deep construction to do.

You tried to do some of that in the 2004 race. After your own campaign ended, you campaigned hard on behalf of Kerry, trying to add to his credibility on national security issues. Why didn't that message take then?

Because we were going against an accumulation of 30 years of statements by others. First of all, I wasn't the candidate, so that automatically reduced the amount of impact. And as you know from the campaign, a lot of effort was made to distort Kerry's message, which I thought was very clear and should have been very reassuring to Americans. But campaigns are adversarial, so there were competing voices out there. [The deep construction] can't be done during the heat of a campaign. This is the time for the Democratic Party to have a strong and correct voice, prescribing a strategy for America and pointing the way ahead -- and being held accountable for it.

Should that voice come in the context of Iraq, or in some larger context?

Both. It's not possible to avoid discussions of Iraq, but I also think you've got to look beyond Iraq and the Middle East.

What should the Democrats be doing and saying now about Iraq?

First of all, we've got to support the troops that are there, their families at home, the military as an institution that's fighting the war, and our veterans. We have to do that because it's a duty for Americans, and if we're going to be the leading party in America, then we have to lead. There's nothing more important for a government than protecting the safety and security of its people, and that requires a strong and ready armed force. So that's the first thing that Democrats have to do. I think we've done a good job at that, and I think we're getting increasing recognition for that.

It's been Democrats who have supported and proposed measures to make sure every vehicle has the appropriate armor, to make sure every solider has body armor and adequate ammunition and training, to make sure that our veterans and our returning soldiers can be taken care of. Democrats have a long-standing reputation for being more interested in the people than in the weapons systems.

But the right hammered Kerry in 2004 for not "supporting the troops." Is the trick to avoiding that next time by building this four-year message you're describing?

You've got to have a consistent message. I wouldn't put a set term on it -- if you had an eight-year or 12-year or 28-year term, that would be even better. What's behind all of this is the legacy of Vietnam, the frustration of veterans. People have gravitated to the other party based on a recollection of angry voices and rallies that condemned the troops when all the troops were doing was supporting a policy that a democratically elected government had put in place.

So Democrats have to pull off being critical of the administration's Iraq policy -- and articulating a better policy of their own -- while not being perceived as denigrating the troops.

First, it's still true that the war in Iraq was a strategic blunder. Even had the intelligence been proven to be correct, it wouldn't have established a compelling necessity to go to war when we did. Second, the intelligence wasn't correct. That said, once we're there, we want to succeed.

The administration's overall strategy is sort of unarguable in the broadest sense. The problem is that it is not executing it well.

"Unarguable" in the sense that the United States has to stay in Iraq until the job is done?

"Unarguable" in the sense that you have to create an Iraqi government that people can have confidence in, that has legitimacy. You also have to have the ability to train the Iraqi military and security forces to take over an increasing proportion of the burden. And you have to deal with Iraq's rough neighborhood.

As far as creating an Iraqi government, the administration essentially did very little for more than a year. And even today, we're having a great deal of difficulty bringing that government together. Then, on the military side, we also wasted a year [before] getting serious about training the Iraqi military and security forces. And the administration hasn't ever really talked about how to deal with Iraq's neighbors other than to threaten them; and it doesn't talk to some of the neighbors, like Syria and Iran.

So it's not that there's no way out. It's that the administration isn't doing a very good job of making a success of what it got us in to.

Can you lay out a road map that would work better?

The question is, could we have done it better? The answer is yes. Could we still do it better? The answer is yes. We would work very closely with the emerging political authorities in Iraq. We would put the resources and organizations in place to train the Iraqis. And we would deal with Iraq's neighbors.

Your presidential campaign stumbled right out of the box when you were asked about the Iraq war resolution. Looking back now, do you think that was the defining moment for your campaign, that you were doomed from that point on?

Well, what I said in testimony repeatedly was that I believed that Congress should empower the president to go forward with a resolution to the United Nations. But I warned against giving him a blank check. I would never have supported the resolution as it ultimately emerged.

But you wavered on that over the course of that particular day.

On that particular day, I explained -- well, I tried to explain -- what my views were on the war. It was a conversation that was less than complete -- let's put it that way.

Has the Downing Street memo had any impact on your views about the war?

You should go back and take a look at the book I wrote in the summer of 2003 ["Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire"]. Essentially, the Downing Street memo confirms everything I said.

Do you think the memo will change the way Americans think about the war or the president?

The Downing Street memo hasn't been given adequate recognition in the press. I think the truth about Iraq is this: It was an elective war; it was a war we didn't have to fight. But this administration chose to fight it. I've said that very consistently, from way before I became a candidate and all through my campaign.

You've said the biggest problem in your 2004 presidential campaign was that you got a late start and had no staff, no political money and no backing at the outset from the established political party. Clearly, you will not start from that sort of handicapped position in 2008, right?

I haven't ruled anything out. [Laughs.] Thanks for asking.

Well, it seems that every time you say anything, the Internet comes alive with reports that you've announced that you're running in 2008.

It's been an amazing thing. I don't know if people who are seasoned political reporters -- you know, the inside-baseball reporters -- ever really appreciated what happened. Maybe they did. But I didn't have a plan to go into politics. People came to me, and I really was drafted. Only after President Carter and Sandy Berger and a lot of other people called me did I really get serious about considering [a run].

And has that draft continued with respect to 2008?

Let's not call it a draft. Let's say this: There's still a lot of support out there -- I picked up a lot of support during that whole process because people came to know me. People in the Democratic Party didn't really know me [before that]. And I met a lot more people when I was campaigning for John Kerry and John Edwards later on.

People who don't know much about you probably assume that you're a one-trick pony -- that you're all about national security. But you've spoken out forcefully on other issues, too. Will national security still be the most important thing in 2008, or will other issues become more important as we get closer to that election?

I think the Democratic Party has to do three things. It has to prove itself a full-service party that is able to deal with and sustain the confidence of the American people on national security.

That's No. 1.

That's No. 1. No. 2 is that it has to show that it's a party that can appeal to, and has appeal in, all parts of the country. We're not writing people off. In fact, local Democratic parties in the South are quite strong -- they just don't have a national connection. The reason is that a lot of the people who vote Democratic on [local] bread-and-butter issues see the national election as something that's more about the future of America. It's not about road improvements, school improvement, Medicaid. It's about which party can best protect and take America forward.

The Democrats do a good job at the local level, but when you get to the national level, we've got to be a party that puts America first -- before any of the particular issues we like to talk about in our party. Democrats talk a lot about policy. But those policy issues, you know, they seldom decide a national election. National elections are decided on convictions. They're decided, ultimately, on a gut check the voter makes. It's not head, it's heart, as the voter goes into the booth and says, Who's the best person and what's the best party to entrust the future of this country to?

The American people really don't agree with many of Bush's domestic policies, but at least in 2004 he got a pass on that because they saw him as a trustworthy, honest, keeping-them-safe kind of guy.

Well, I think the "they" was a slim margin, and a whole lot of "theys" didn't. Elections in America tend to be very close affairs, just like approval ratings are. Most presidents have stayed at a fairly low rate of approval, 60 percent or less, which reflects the fact that Americans see issues and politics not in simple terms but in complex terms.

But when they go into the [voting booth], they see the issue -- of who they can trust with the future of the country -- through their heart, while the [Democratic Party] tends to look at it in terms of policy competition.

And so, as I started to say, there's three things the Democratic Party has to do: No. 1 is full service. No. 2 is, across the country, nobody left out. No. 3 is we've got to be a party that the American people understands will fight and stand up for what we believe in.

Does that start with standing up for yourselves as a party?

It does.

If it's important that Democrats stand up and fight for themselves, how damaging is something like the intraparty squabbling over Howard Dean's recent comments about Republicans?

The more we can do to focus on the real issues that affect the voters, the more trust we'll gain from the voters. I think it's not too early now to begin the track record of laying out what the Democratic Party stands for, what we believe in.

We are, after all, a party of family values. We believe in the values that support families, like jobs and healthcare and education, and we've proved it. And without their concrete expression in effective policies, you can't support families.

Do you think the American people are growing tired of the Republican take on these issues?

I do.

So is it time for Democrats to come in with a forceful alternative view, or is it more a matter of letting Republicans hoist themselves on their own petard?

Democrats need a coherent vision of where we want to take America. I don't think there's been a time in recent memory when everyday life in America has been so affected by events abroad -- not just on national security and public safety but on our jobs, our healthcare, our retirement security. Nor has there been a time when what we did at home was so determinative of our future. For example, we're simply not going to be competitive at the levels we want to be in a global economic era unless we can really improve American public education.

And what can you do about issues like these over the next however long it is before you make a decision about 2008?

It's a matter of both formulating and speaking and acting. I laid out a strategy in the book I published in 2003, "Winning Modern Wars," in the sixth chapter. It's still the right strategy for America. It's even more current now than it was then about how we have to conduct ourselves abroad and what we have to do at home to meet the competition from overseas. And then I think we've got to encourage Americans to get moving.

"Get moving" in what sense?

On education, healthcare reform, dealing with the reality of poverty, heading off crises before they erupt into war, promoting better business practices at home and a better business environment at home.

It seems like that would have, if not the dual purpose, at least the dual effect, of shaping the debate and broadening your own portfolio a bit.

Well, I have a broad background. People in uniform have had incredibly varied careers, and they've done a lot of things. Because so many Americans don't haven't gone through the military themselves, they may be not aware of that.

In the military I was responsible for 44,000 schoolchildren in Europe. I had a number of hospitals [to oversee], I had to deal with problems of diplomacy, I had to deal with base-closure problems and job problems in the civilian economy, I had a big budget to manage -- in addition to being a sort of traditional general. And in the military, we got all the education that you could possibly want. I had a degree in philosophy, politics, economics. I taught political philosophy and economics. I was an assistant in the White House Office of Management and Budget. I saw how budget decisions are made. I saw how the president goes through the annual budget, and I worked the process with Congress.

Returning to the idea of standing up for what you believe in, I keep hearing the line, "If Kerry didn't stand up for himself against attacks from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, how could we know that he'd stand up for our country?" Do you think that's the right analysis of what Kerry did wrong?

I don't know whether that analysis is right, but I don't think that, going forward, it's the question we should be focused on. What I'd like to focus on is, how do we ensure that the American people trust the Democratic Party?

This country needs a strong two-party system. There's no doubt that the Republican Party has arrayed a group of ideas that they express fervently and fight for. There's no doubt that the Democrats have a strong body of ideas. What we want is for the public to understand that those ideas encompass all Americans and all of America. They'll keep us safe at home and abroad. We're the best party to lead, and we'll stand up and fight for what we believe in.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2008 Elections Democratic Party Howard Dean Iraq War John F. Kerry