Waiting for the General

General Wesley Clark
General Wesley Clark; drawing by David Levine

The mystery at the center of the contest for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination is whether a late-entering candidate with no direct experience in domestic politics can win it. The entry of retired General Wesley Clark in mid-September dramatically changed the dynamics of the race: he has been at or near the top of polls of registered Democrats ever since and has a strong and enthusiastic following that began to organize months before he entered the race. Some polls show him defeating President Bush. Clark is trying to do what no other serious candidate for the presidency has done before.

Until Clark’s announcement, the presumed front-runners were Howard Dean and John Kerry. Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, and perhaps John Edwards were also considered serious candidates. But none appeared to be a runaway winner. This lack of enthusiasm on the part of voters was one of the reasons why Clark decided to run. The mystery is whether such a belated and, to many, unlikely effort can succeed.

Never before has someone so in-experienced in national politics—at least one whose candidacy has to be taken seriously—entered the presidential campaign so late and under such difficult circumstances. Though, like virtually everyone who runs for president, Clark is immodest, he doesn’t think of himself as comparable to Eisenhower. When Eisenhower decided to run as a Republican in 1952, both parties had been seeking him out, and he was handed the nomination by Republican Party leaders.

Howard Dean can be said to be leading a genuine movement; he has attracted a strong following through his opposition to the war in Iraq and his ability to express the anger that many Democrats feel toward Bush; he has strong organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire. But his irritability often spills over at inopportune times. On ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos he responded testily to a question about his having strongly supported NAFTA and denied that he had ever done so, even though he had signed a letter saying that he had. On the other hand, a speech I saw Dean deliver recently at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee was strong and assured. He was able to arouse the Democrats’ anger, though to a degree that seemed to me almost disturbing.

John Kerry’s is a perplexing campaign. He can be very effective or can seem wooden and perfunctory. I saw him addressing a women’s lunch where he seemed steady and well-informed on a wide range of issues, including health care and the disastrous reconstruction of Iraq. He was also loose and funny. In his speech to the DNC he attacked Howard Dean and the other candidates—most of the others refrained from criticizing their competition—and spent considerable time calling attention to his own accomplishments, often using the first person singular. During his campaign, he has, I think, talked too much of his service in Vietnam…

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