The Washington Times

When I first met Wes Clark at a small Washington dinner party when he was supreme allied commander in Europe, I quickly concluded that he had a bright political future if he was inclined to pursue it. That he might well be so inclined once his military career came to a close was an impression he did little to dispel. In addition to an obvious intelligence and the demeanor of complete self-assurance that is common in the top ranks of the military, he spoke about foreign policy and the importance of the spread of freedom in neo-Reaganite terms. This was especially important to me at the time, coming as it did as some of us were working on making the case for the enlargement of NATO to the territory of the former Warsaw Pact [and since, of the former Soviet Union itself].

Generals – and for that matter, politicians – who can talk naturally about such “values” issues are sufficiently rare to bear watching carefully. Gen. Clark had the spark.

Of course, at the time, I thought his political future would be as a Republican. But the world is full of surprises.

There was nothing whatsoever “grassroots” about the “Draft Clark” campaign supposedly arising spontaneously during the months in which he was considering whether or not to make a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was as elite an operation as they come. Nevertheless, it was very effective. One might think that the reaction to the proposition that Gen. Clark was considering a run or that others were urging him to would evoke a yawn. So what? Here’s a man who has never run for or held office, whose military career was on one hand brilliant, but on the other controversial, and who had hitherto given no evidence of knowledgeability about or even interest in domestic policy.

Nevertheless, the whispering on Gen. Clark’s behalf ate its way through the current field of Democratic presidential aspirants like an insidious acid. The question the mere possibility of a Clark campaign posed was whether any of the others could really pass muster with an American electorate deeply anxious about national security and inclined to trust Republicans more than Democrats on the subject.

A September 2003 Gallup survey showed Americans favoring Republicans 51-36 over Democrats on the issue of “which party will do a better job of protecting the country from terrorism and military threats?” All by itself, this sentiment poses a massive obstacle to Democrats’ hopes for 2004. The Clark whisperings kept reinforcing the message. The plausibility of Gen. Clark as a candidate rests entirely on his presumed status as the man who can overcome that general and persistent Democratic liability.

But what about the base of the Democratic Party, the part that is currently so energized in favor of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean? In the event that Mr. Dean is not the nominee, how would the hard-core activists respond? And specifically, how would they respond to Gen. Clark if he emerges as the alternative? How does the anti-war left, which in general has no great affection for the military or those who command it, make its peace with a candidate as hawkish as Gen. Clark was in Kosovo, whose opposition to our Iraq venture was equivocal at best and whose domestic views are essentially an unknown quantity?

Any Republicans taking comfort from these questions ought to be careful. The activist wing of the Democratic Party likes Mr. Dean just fine, but that’s not solely because of his opposition to the Iraq war. It’s also because he is unequivocal on the attack against George W. Bush. The party base had its patience tried to the breaking point in 2002 with the deference Democratic leaders accorded the president by dint of Mr. Bush’s standing on national security matters. Once the 2002 election went badly, the party base demanded a more forceful opposition, and Mr. Dean supplied it. He has since taught every other Democratic aspirant that credibility within the party begins with such opposition.

And yet, the No. 1 objective – the overriding imperative – is to defeat Mr. Bush. The paradox of the Dean campaign is that he has well and truly motivated the Democratic base around the proposition that Mr. Bush must, must go. It does not necessarily follow from this imperative, however, that Mr. Dean is the one who can get rid of him.

And here again, the Clark whisperings come into play. It would be nice if you could plausibly imagine Mr. Dean beating Mr. Bush, but can you really? Don’t you need someone with proven experience in national security? And not just someone who, like John Kerry, served in Vietnam, but someone who did that and then went on to the top of the military profession?

No, I think if Gen. Clark won the nomination, a united party would be with him for the main event. Come to think of it, channeling the energy of the left into support for an electable Democratic candidate is a feat worthy of Bill Clinton.