It’s been several days since Hurricane Wesley blew into Washington, washing away the conventional wisdom, inflicting serious damage to several major Democratic campaigns, and leaving floods of media speculation about his ties to the Clintons in low-lying areas of Capitol Hill.
Two weeks ago, the storyline of the Democratic primary has transformed from a chaotic free-for-all with a Vermont governor sparring with a gaggle of veteran Washington senators. Now, the race is a titanic struggle between the liberal base of the party and the retired military man backed by Clintonite centrists at the top of the party.
The fact that Wesley Clark is running for president because the Clintons want him to is now clearly established. There’s the former president’s observation at an intimate dinner party at the Clinton Chappaqua, N.Y., estate that “there are two stars in the Democratic party–Hillary and Wes Clark.” There’s the slew of former Clintonites jumping on the Clark bandwagon. In an interview with the Miami Herald, Clark said that “he had been flooded with requests to run–including from New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.” He told the New York Times that both Clintons had encouraged him to make the run. Rush Limbaugh is already calling Clark “Hillary Clinton’s sock puppet.”
On Capitol Hill, Republicans say, without attribution, that they’re unnerved by the possibility of a Clark-Hillary Clinton ticket, although the possibility of that pairing is a ways down the road.
For the past couple months, most political reporters were ready to give Howard Dean the John McCain treatment (“He’s a maverick! He speaks his mind and doesn’t care about the consequences! He’s made the tough calls, having signed a civil-unions bill a couple months before a gubernatorial election!”). Now, much of that gushing prose and overheated comparisons to history’s great men are going to shift to Clark. As William Safire put it:
As expected, fickle media that had been entranced with Dean (Dr. Lose-the-War) dropped the cranky Vermonter like a cold couch potato and are lionizing Clinton’s fellow Arkansan and fellow Rhodes scholar. He’s new, handsome, intellectual, a genuine Silver Star Vietnam hero and taught economics at West Point.
Now the Dean love-fest is ending, and the flaws and weaknesses of the Green Mountain state doctor are garnering new attention. Time magazine’s Joe Klein, the author of Primary Colors, revealed last week that he has fallen completely out of love with Dean:
Those of us demented enough to follow electoral politics have been living with the nine Democrats for most of a year now. They’ve become pretty boring. They gather occasionally to debate one another and succeed only in diminishing themselves. Howard Dean’s exciting candidacy was an exception for most of the summer, but he has spent much of September stepping on his epaulets, too.
Bob Herbert of the New York Times demoted Dean from the star of the field to naming him, along with John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, as a part of “a caravan of disappointments.”
Steve Ford, editorial-page editor of the Charlotte News and Observer, twisted the knife into his home state’s candidate:
If chasing the presidency takes supreme self-confidence and spunk, it’s hard to see Wesley Clark coming up short in either category. But will he be able to withstand the white-hot glare of a national campaign? Will he be able to connect with citizens who don’t have to follow orders? John Edwards has to be hoping on one level that he won’t–but also might well be thinking: If it’s not me, we could do worse.
A Democrat working on another presidential campaign–not Dean’s–believes that “Clark’s mouth could get him in trouble, even on CNN. The quote yesterday–’I said I wouldn’t take strong positions’ was baffling.”
Much of Clark’s early troubles came from an interview conducted on his campaign jet with Adam Nagourney of the New York Times, the Washington Post’s Joanna Weiss, and Johanna Neuman of the Los Angeles Times. As the Iraq questions were getting tougher and more detailed, Clark called for his press aide Mary Jacoby, according to Nagourney’s account.
“Mary, help!” the retired general cried.
Jacoby reminded Clark, “You said you would have voted for the resolution as leverage for a U.N.-based solution.”
“Right,” Clark said. “Exactly.”
Despite his initial flubs, Clark’s coverage has been largely laudatory, and is likely to remain so unless he makes some tremendous gaffe or takes a stand that angers one of the party’s major interest groups. It’s likely that the party’s patience for the lesser candidates will run out in the coming months. As Klein put it, “In an ideal world, it would be time to clear the stage. The three vanity candidates–Al Sharpton, Dennis Kucinich, and Carol Moseley Braun–should repair immediately to the lecture circuit. John Edwards and Bob Graham should return to the Senate.”
Last week, before Clark’s official announcement, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe ordered an extra podium be set aside for Clark at the Sept. 25 debate among Democratic candidates in New York City. But as the media pressure to thin the field grows, the stage is likely to be a little less crowded at debates after Thursday night.
–Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service, is a frequent contributor to NRO.