To hear some media and political analysts tell it, the biggest political side effect of the war isn’t the poll boost for President Bush, Sen. John Kerry’s controversial statement urging American “regime change,” or the refutation of the antiwar Left’s predictions of doom. The 24/7 war coverage over the past month has actually been the mother of all campaign kickoffs for the presidential hopes of retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark.
“Television coverage of the war in Iraq has resulted in a publicity windfall for Clark,” writes Paul Barton of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Scripps Howard News Service columnist Lisa Hoffman calls Clark one of the war’s “winners,” adding he “scores with weeks of national face time as a CNN analyst.” Knight Ridder’s Glenn Garvin writes that Clark’s “willingness to criticize U.S. military strategy has won him enemies in the White House and fans on Internet message boards.”
But the other Democratic candidates aren’t quaking in their boots at the thought of taking on the former four-star general and NATO commander. In fact, some think CNN’s Clarkathon has diminished, rather than enhanced, the retired general’s image.
“Wesley Clark’s CNN appearances give him the name recognition he lacked but strip him of the gravitas he brought to the table in the first place,” says one advisor to a Democratic candidate. “Yes, the war in Iraq has made Clark a household name. The Gulf War made Scud Stud Arthur Kent a household name too, and now he’s a just a trivia question. Clark may face a similar fate.”
The Democratic candidate adviser contends that the “talking head appearances” have laid a trap for Clark.
“In the span of a 60 second interview, you’re either second guessing the military and conveying weakness and anxiety, or you’re cheerleading and alienating the anti-war left which hated the war from its beginning,” he said. “Clark’s appeal was in what he might have been, not in what he is.”
Was Clark’s analysis wrong? He wasn’t as far off the mark as, say, Nancy “thousands of people killed on both sides” Pelosi, but many of his comments seemed to focus on what had the potential to go wrong, instead of what appeared to be going right.
Clark at times questioned whether the U.S. should have sent in more personnel. Speaking at Presbyterian College in South Carolina on March 25, Clark said, “What we can’t know is how effective air power will be against the first-echelon defense… We might be able to do the job if air power is effective, if we don’t have close contact with enemy forces and if the Iraqi will is broken. But those are a lot of big ifs. Why not use it (ground force) if you have it?”
He told Cox News Service that a quick victory in Iraq is “not going to happen… The simple fact is that the liberation didn’t quite occur. They didn’t uprise.” In a mid-March interview with Salon.com, Clark said he originally had predicted a war lasting two or three weeks, but “that was all premised on our having our force there and being ready to go at the outset. Of course we weren’t.” Asked why the Pentagon would start the war “if not all the troops were in place, he replied, “I can’t explain it. I can’t defend it; I’ve never seen the plan. This is the decision that was made. It might work out; then again, it might not.”
Clark’s reputation appears to be in better shape than the Republican Guard, but it’s taken some hits.
Morton Kondrake of Roll Call says, “The Democratic party should think very carefully about taking advice from Wesley Clark, who has been a doomsayer about this from the beginning.”
“The two big losers of the war in the media were Gen. Barry McCaffrey and Wesley Clark,” says University of Virginia political-science professor Larry Sabato. “They were so wrong. They got way out on a limb on criticizing the Pentagon and the war plan and obviously the success of the operation cut the limb off.”
Sabato says the massive media exposure was a mixed bag for a Clark candidacy.
“He raised his name ID, but it’s likely that now there are lots of people who just know his name and don’t have much of an opinion of him as a candidate,” Sabato says. “He certainly comes across well on TV — he looks good, he sounds good, and comes across as authoritative. Those are all plusses.”
But Sabato also says the general’s doubts and criticism of ultimately vindicated Pentagon war planners mean Clark “shot himself in both feet for general election.”
“I can’t imagine the Democrats flocking to a little-known general who has never been elected sheriff anywhere. Seeking the presidency as your first elected office really takes some ego.” And before anyone can mention the most recent general to step directly to the Oval Office, Sabato responds, “I knew Dwight Eisenhower and Wesley Clark is no Dwight Eisenhower.”
Of course, Clark may be aiming for a slightly lower position. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told the AP that Clark is “everybody’s favorite vice presidential pick … he has a great story to tell, he has tremendous credibility on the issues of war — credibility and strength on issues that Democrats are striving to get credibility on.”
“The Democrats would love to neutralize the national security card with somebody like Clark,” Sabato said. “In my mind it won’t work, but if the press during the election declares the card neutralized they can have quite an impact on that. But there’s no substitutes for the kind of experience that Bush has endured last couple of years. And besides that, Clark’s record in the Pentagon made many an enemy in the military.”
One political observer who had dealt with Clark said that the general’s fights in the Pentagon were not the usual results of disputes over policy, but a refection of Clark’s “arrogance… he’s always absolutely sure of the rightness of his position.” Clark doesn’t appear to be on great terms with the most recent Democratic commander-in-chief, either. It is rumored that donors approached by Clark went to President Clinton for advice and got the thumbs down on the general.
Sabato isn’t a big fan of the close relationship between the potential candidate and the network elevating his profile.
“I think it is a very strange thing that CNN chose a potential Democratic presidential candidate to be one of the key commentators on the war,” Sabato says. “Could they not see the obvious conflict of interest there? The man was privately organizing to run. All kinds of Democratic activists and financiers have been talking to him, and yet here he is on CNN pretending to be an impartial observer.”
Clark’s CNN newsdesk partner Aaron Brown didn’t raise the issue of the analyst’s political aspirations until Tuesday night: “I’ve said I’m not a candidate, Aaron,” Clark said. “To me — I am concerned about the country. I am pleased the war has worked out the way it did. It’s not clear what the future is. I think the American people still need a dialogue to talk about our new role in the world and where it leads. And I’m delighted to be part of that process in commenting on television and giving speeches around the country and so forth. It’s a real honor that people come up to me and think of me that way. But I’ve made no decisions.”
— Jim Geraghty is a reporter with States News Service in Washington, D.C.