The notion that liberals disdain people in uniform was always a bit of a myth. Even during Vietnam, concern for the loss of young American lives was probably the anti-war movement’s most powerful motivation.
Since then, sneery right-wingers have had it both ways about liberals and the military: When liberals oppose military action, conservative voices accuse them of betraying our fighting men and women. When liberals support military action, they are accused of callous indifference to the lives of American soldiers.
THE LIBERAL FANTASY
But the current liberal swooning over (retired) generals is truly something new. A widespread fantasy among liberals who loathe the Bush administration, for example, is that Colin Powell will resign as secretary of state and “say what he really thinks.” This will bring down the whole house of cards, these liberals believe. What he really thinks, they think, is more or less what they really think.
There is not much basis for this belief. Powell is skilled at distancing himself from certain policies without seeming disloyal. But if he really were as opposed to the administration he serves as these liberal fantasists imagine, a resignation at this point would come much too late to have any moral force.
Then there is Gen. Wesley Clark. Much of his support comes from people who think they haven’t swooned themselves but believe that others will do so. But most of these people are in a swoon whether they realize it or not. They think that Clark has the best chance of defeating George Bush, and that nothing else matters. Their assessment is based on what seems to me a simple-minded view that you can place all the candidates on a political spectrum, then pick the one who’s as far toward the other side as your side can bear, and call it pragmatism.
How pragmatic is it, though, to snub the one candidate who seems to be able to get people’s juices flowing-that would be Howard Dean-in favor of one with nothing interesting to say, on the theory that this, plus the uniform stashed in the back of his closet, will make him appealing to people you disagree with? When the odds are against you, as they are for the Democrats in 2004, caution and calculation can be the opposite of pragmatism.
Clark might have been joking when he said he’s only a Democrat because Karl Rove, the Bush White House Rasputin, wouldn’t return his phone calls. But Clark’s serious explanation, in a speech last week to the Democratic National Committee, isn’t much better. He says he was appropriately apolitical during his military career, but three years ago “when I left the Army, I looked at the parties and the differences couldn’t have been more clear.” He is, he says, “pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment, pro-health care, and pro-labor,” reciting the party catechism by rote and offering no details. What does it even mean to be “pro-health care”?
So the general got off his horse, gazed at the landscape, and decided to grant the gift of his person to the Democrats. By now he’s got the basic philosophy down pat, and he has his people working to flesh out the programmatic stuff. Furthermore, he knows who to go to. He listens to so-and-so, Clark supporters reassure doubters. There is no doubt that a President Clark would have sound, mainstream-liberal policies on all matters, reflecting the best thinking of the finest minds in every field. He may not yet know what he thinks about school vouchers, or Medicare reform, or Israeli settlements in occupied territory. But I know.
Democrats mocked in 2000 when Republicans defended their support of an ignoramus for president by saying that he would surround himself with good advisers. Unlike the incumbent, Wesley Clark is not unable or radically disinclined to master the details of policy. Anyway, a fully stocked larder of policies and positions on issues is a vapid measure of a political candidate. But anyone who wakes up to politics like Rip Van Winkle, and-without troubling to develop any but the most abstract political sentiments-immediately decides that the country needs him as president, clearly thinks highly of himself for reasons that may not be universally apparent.
It is apparent to some, though. Perhaps unfairly, I have this mental image of Wesley Clark spending the past three years in the big-shot bubble. He goes from corporate speech to fancy international conference to dinner in honor of some VIP, possibly him. And everywhere he goes, fine, smart people are telling him, “General, we need a fine, smart guy like you to straighten out this mess the politicians have gotten the country into.” He comes to believe it and comes to believe that many other people believe it. He even forgets how many other people may never even have heard of him.
To be fair, Clark has supporters outside the big-shot bubble. He even has enthusiasts, which is more than the other realistic candidates (besides Dean) can say. People may vote for Dick Gephardt, even vote happily. But is there anyone not in his family or on his payroll who lies awake in bed at night, longing for Dick Gephardt to become president?
Wes Clark has a genuine following, especially among younger folks (although there is a rebellion over something-or-other going on this week among Clark’s Internet enthusiasts). In a properly functioning democracy-which ours is, barely-everyone is entitled to one youthful political swoon over a candidate who seems to be bucking the system. Mine was for John Anderson in 1980. Others have swooned over Ross Perot or John McCain or Lee Iacocca. The rules entitle the swooner to project his or her views onto the candidate, despite any lack of evidence or even evidence of the opposite. But the rules also insist that the candidate will never win.
Michael Kinsley is Slate’s founding editor.