Gen. Wesley Clark is the next guest in the hot seat in our special series, ‘Hardball: Battle for the White House.’ Dec. 8, Monday, 7 p.m. ET
Gen. Wesley Clark's resume is impressive, even overwhelming — Rhodes Scholar, Vietnam War captain honored with a Silver Star for valor in combat, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO — and that resume, with his deep national security credentials, is the centerpiece of Clark’s campaign. The holes in that resume — nearly non-existent domestic policy experience, latecomer to the Democratic Party, limited time in the national spotlight — are his biggest weakness, sure to be exploited by his rivals on the campaign trail.
Clark was the last to enter the race for the Democratic nomination, after a months-long volunteer “Draft Clark” effort. But when he did finally enter the late start translated into star-power and significant media attention — perhaps more than all the other nine candidates combined in their first weeks campaigning.
As Clark likes to say, his sudden entry also meant they were “building the ship as it left the harbor.” With that, came the disadvantage of trying to find his voice and message under the spotlight.
His campaign style, a supporter said recently, is more “confident and surefooted” now, but he certainly did not start that way. Clark’s previous experience in elections was limited to a run for homeroom student council, not exactly preparation for the never-ending press conference of a presidential campaign. And while nuance served him well with the military diplomats in NATO, his position on the resolution to go to war with Iraq can’t be nuanced, and certainly can’t include the words “probably would have.” “Probably” doesn’t work in presidential politics.
The General tends to define his candidacy by one word: leadership. It is a powerful selling point in a post 9-11 world. This military man disagrees with the military involvement in Iraq. As former head of NATO during the Kosovo War, his foreign policy credentials are solid and his positions informed. He promotes patriotism in all forms and espouses a strong sense of duty, honor and integrity. But he left the Pentagon under a cloud of political conflict and accusations of grandstanding, and some of his former colleagues on the general staff are loud opponents of Clark for President.
The political battlefield is hazardous for any non-politician. Opting out of Iowa has not lessened the pressure on the campaign to canvass and multiply ground troops in all the other early primary states in a short amount of time. His campaign headquarters in Little Rock has walls covered with posters showing checkboxes still to be filled for state directors and coordinators. Although national polls keep him near or at the top, name recognition is still at a premium in places like New Hampshire and Arizona. At the moment, South Carolina looks like his most promising early state, with a recent poll showing Clark with a slight lead.
General Clark has to prove he is more than just a resume. He speaks as passionately on domestic issues as he does about foreign policy. He argues he has handled domestic issues when he ran various command posts, but he hasn’t had to deal with the minutia of gun control, Medicare, and education. On the campaign trail it shows with vague answers.
Clark’s four stars have shone most brightly with Democratic voters when he attacks President Bush and provides an alternative plan on the war on terror and Iraq. Still, there are any number of domestic issues Clark has to weigh in on in order to be considered as well-rounded and a strong a contender as he was first heralded to be.
Clark is nothing if not a quick study on the rules of engagement political or otherwise. On Hardball, there will be no excuses.
The Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government hosts the series. The audience, which will be comprised mostly of local college students, will also ask questions of the candidates. Admittance to these forums will require a ticket. While most tickets will be distributed to Harvard and other local college students. Some tickets will be reserved for the general public. Instructions for obtaining tickets will be available on the IOP Website.
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