As General Wesley Clark plunges into the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, he would be wise to recall the warning of a shrewd Roman historian. Tacitus wrote of a gifted but disastrous political leader: “capax imperii nisi imperasset.”
This crabbed Latin judgment is famously hard to translate but its rough meaning goes: “He would have made a very fine emperor if, poor fellow, he had not actually become emperor.”
All too many presidential candidates fit this mordant description. They peak on the day of their announcement and decline precipitously thereafter. Governor George Romney was once considered a shoo-in for the Republican nomination. Then, seeking to explain earlier statements of support for the Vietnam war, he rashly admitted to being “brainwashed” by the U.S. Army. This admission wounded him, but not mortally. It was left to Professor (later Senator) Daniel Moynihan to deliver the coup de grace: “Brainwashing? In the case of the governor a light rinse would be sufficient.”
General Clark is probably made of sterner stuff. He had a distinguished academic career as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford who also graduated first in his class at West Point. His military career is no less creditable. He served in Vietnam where he was thrice decorated for heroism as commander of an armor company. And as Supreme Allied Commander in NATO alliance he waged its successful war in Kosovo.
Democratic strategists are hailing his candidacy because they see him as the perfect Democratic standard-bearer–namely an antiwar soldier. As such, they calculate, he can both unite both wings of the party and also insulate it against the charge of not being serious about national security. And because he is an unknown quantity on almost all domestic questions, he is free to define himself as the polls dictate.
But there are always obstacles on the road to the White House. And General Clark faces at least four.
In the first place, he is a general. Contrary to the widely-held myth that Americans long to vote for a man on a white horse, the voters are actually quite wary of military men. As UPI’s Martin Sieff has pointed out, only six generals have been elected President since the founding of the Republic; the last example was President Eisenhower almost 50 years ago; and the last general to be elected as a Democrat was Andrew Jackson in 1828! And even when they smile on generals, the voters are highly selective. They elect those who are military heroes with major victories to their credit on the Washington-Eisenhower model rather than merely able commanders. And Gen. Clark himself would not claim to be in that heroic mould.
Of course, soldiers from lower ranks have sometimes been elected president. Harry Truman is a case in point. But they have been elected on other grounds, domestic political grounds, not because they were trailing clouds of military glory. If he is to be elected in turn, Gen. Clark will need to get a domestic program–and quick. On his first outing, he was visibly stumped by questions that his rivals, Dean, Kerry, Lieberman, et al. could have answered in their (and the voters’) sleep.
Gen. Clark’s second problem is that he is a not very antiwar candidate in a thoroughly antiwar party. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the left-wing media watchdog, has unearthed a wonderful series of embarrassing contradictions about the Iraq invasion that Gen. Clark committed in the last year.
For instance: George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair “should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt” (the London Times, 4/10/03). Or, in the same newspaper on the following day, “. . . if there is a single overriding lesson, it must be this: American military power . . . is virtually unchallengeable today. Take us on? Don’t try. And that’s not hubris, it’s just plain fact.” And much more in like vein.
These quotations sit oddly alongside his recent claims that he was an opponent of the war from the very beginning. His own Kosovo victory further undermines any antiwar credentials. For it was an undeclared war without U.N. approval against an enemy, namely Slobodan Milosevic, who never had weapons of mass destruction and posed much less of a direct threat to the U.S. than Saddam Hussein. And Clark cannot resolve these contradictions even by some desperate Romney-like claim to have been brainwashed by the U.S. Army since his army resume is at least half his campaign.
That seriously aggravates his third problem–namely, that as the candidate appealing to both wings of the Democrats, he necessarily also annoys both wings. Clark’s arrival has undoubtedly sunk the campaign of southern moderate Senator John Edwards, the “Pretty Boy Floyd” of trial lawyers, and is sucking the air and finance out of the campaign of veteran antiwar veteran John Kerry, whose military credentials are considerably less impressive. So far, so good.
But in the latest Newsweek poll, taken only a day after Clark entered the race when he had all the advantages of novelty, he is a mere two points ahead of both the left-wing progressive Governor Howard Dean and the right-wing moderate Senator Joe Lieberman. As the campaign progresses, Clark is bound to alienate natural Dean supporters in the course of appealing to natural Lieberman ones‹and vice versa‹even if he makes no actual gaffes. Both Dean and Lieberman, however, have campaign experience, good organizations loyal to them, financial backing, and real issues about which their constituencies feel passionate. They show no sign of being hustled off the political stage by the media swooning over Clark.
Gen. Clark’s final drawback is the apparent backing he has received from the Clintons and their political apparatus. Former Clinton advisors surround the General and favorable comments on his campaign have been leaked from their eyrie in New York.
But if bad things happen to enemies of the Clintons, worse things happen to their friends‹Kathleen Willey got groped in the course of being “comforted” in her widow’s grief, Vince Foster committed suicide, and Webb Hubbell, Jim and Susan MacDougall, and former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker all went to jail,
Probably Gen. Clark will not go to prison or be groped. If President Bush looks vulnerable in early 2004, however, no one will be surprised if Clark ends up with a purely decorative vice-presidential nomination and a look of glazed surprise on his face as his top campaign aides cluster around the Democratic party’s surprise nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton. And something similar will happen in 2008 if the GOP looks too formidable for Hillary this time round.
If Gen. Clark thought that Milosevic was a formidable foe, he is about to learn the far more ruthless tactics of Political Warfare 101.
A version of this piece appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times. John O’Sullivan, editor of The National Interest, can be reached via www.benadorassociates.com.