Democratic role-switching

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When nine candidates have been running for a party’s presidential nomination for nearly a year, and a 10th candidate jumps in with widespread support from party leaders and the public, it’s a rebuke. It’s a message that none of the nine candidates has measured up. In the case of Wesley Clark, it’s a message that the candidate with the war record, the candidate who was supposed to keep the party in the center and fend off the standard-bearer of the left, hasn’t measured up. That candidate is John Kerry.

InsertArt(2022142)ASK PEOPLE why they support Clark, and you’ll hear all the reasons why they were supposed to support Kerry. He’s credible on foreign policy and national security. He fought in Vietnam. He can stop Howard Dean. He can beat President Bush.

I just about choked on my salad when I read my colleague Chris Suellentrop’s dispatch from Clark’s recent foray to South Carolina: “One of Clark’s rhetorical tricks is to turn every issue into ‘security.’ He talks about ‘retirement security’ and ‘health security.’ When a voter asks him about energy, he replies, ‘It is the nation’s security.’ ” That’s exactly the shtick Kerry delivered to the Democratic Leadership Council last year: “job security, income security, retirement security, health security, physical security, national security,” and the security of “renewable energy sources.” For some reason, Kerry dropped that theme. Now it’s Clark’s.


In South Carolina, Clark championed a “new patriotism” incorporating public service and the right to dissent. Guess which of the other nine candidates has most aggressively preached the importance of public service and the right to dissent. Guess which one has proposed the most extensive national service program and has used his war record to defend the patriotism of the president’s wartime critics.

If you’re Kerry, you’ve got to be ticked. Clark joins the race and instantly leads you in the polls. Why? OK, he’s got that Southern angle: He announces in Arkansas and flies to Florida and South Carolina. He’s got that word “general” in front of his name, which is the only thing most people know about him when they answer a poll. He’s got a Silver Star and Bronze Star. But so do you. You’ve got more Purple Hearts than he does. You’ve got way more foreign policy experience. And you’re the one who’s spent years formulating and months articulating a complete set of policies on domestic and international issues. Clark jumps in, mouths a few platitudes, and he’s all the rage.

Why hasn’t Kerry caught on? I’ve suggested two reasons. The superficial one is that he’s stiff. The fundamental one is that he tries to have everything both ways. He never walks into a sentence without leaving himself a way out. Exhibit A is his argument that when he voted last fall to authorize U.S. military action in Iraq, he was only voting for the “threat of force” in order to get “the inspectors back in” and “to have a chance of going to the United Nations and stopping the president” from invading unilaterally. Exhibit B is his plea that he “voted on the basis of information,” provided by the administration, “that has since then been proven to be incorrect.” Exhibit C is his complaint that Bush “rushed to war” after Kerry and others in Congress gave him the green light.


And what has Clark said about the war resolution? According to the Associated Press, on Oct. 9, 2002, just before Congress voted for it, “Clark said … he supports a congressional resolution that would give President Bush authority to use military force against Iraq, although he has reservations about the country’s move toward war. … The general said he had no doubt Iraq posed a threat, but questioned whether it was immediate.”

Since then, Clark has repeatedly questioned Bush’s truthfulness in making the case for war. Last Thursday, after announcing his candidacy for president, Clark said,

1) “I was against the war as it emerged because there was no reason to start it when we did.”

2) “At the time, I probably would have voted for it, but I think that’s too simple a question.”

3) “I don’t know if I would have or not. I’ve said it both ways because when you get into this, what happens is you have to put yourself in a position-on balance, I probably would have voted for it. When the president of the United States comes to you and makes the linkages and lays the power of the office on you, and you’re in a crisis, the balance of the judgment probably goes to the president.”

4) “I think [Dean’s] right. That in retrospect we should never have gone in there. … But on the other hand, he wasn’t inside the bubble of those who were exposed to the information.”

According to the New York Times, Clark’s press secretary tried to clear things up by telling Clark, “You said you would have voted for the resolution as leverage for a U.N.-based solution.” Clark replied, “Right. Exactly.”


On Friday, Clark said, “I would never have voted for this war. I’ve gotten a very consistent record on this. There was no imminent threat.” But he added, “I would have voted for the right kind of leverage to get a diplomatic solution, an international solution to the challenge of Saddam Hussein.”

Add it up. Like Kerry, Clark supported the resolution authorizing the use of force. Like Kerry, he says his purpose in doing so was to provide leverage for a U.N. solution and thereby avoid war. Like Kerry, he would have trusted the president. Like Kerry, he says Bush misled the country. Like Kerry, he says Bush rushed to war. But everywhere you look, people are talking about Clark as the man of steel who can lead the Democrats.

Next, they’ll be celebrating his Jewish ancestry.

William Saletan is Slate’s chief political correspondent.