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If Clark runs, all bets are off

WESLEY CLARK has told associates that he will decide in the next few weeks whether to declare for president. If he does, it would transform the race. Call me star-struck, but he'd instantly be among the top tier. Clark, in case you've been on sabbatical in New Zealand, is all over the talk shows. He's the former NATO supreme commander who headed operations in Kosovo, a Rhodes Scholar who graduated first in his class at West Point, and a Vietnam vet with several combat medals including a purple heart. He has been a tough critic of Bush's foreign policy. His domestic positions are not as fully fashioned, but he'd repeal Bush's tax cuts and revisit the so-called Patriot Act.

More interestingly, Clark is progressive on domestic issues by way of his military background. Though it is very much a hierarchy, the military is also the most egalitarian island in this unequal society. Top executives -- four-star generals -- make about nine times the pay of buck privates.

In corporate life, the ratio of CEO to worker bee is more like 900 times. The military also has America's most comprehensive child care system. And, as Clark likes to point out, everyone has health care. He's also pro-affirmative action and prochoice.

My favorite Clark riposte is on guns. He grew up hunting, in a family that had more than a dozen hunting rifles. But he's pro-gun control. "If you want to fire an assault weapon," he says, "join the army." The NRA can put that in its AK-47 and smoke it.

Clark is the soldier as citizen. Even better, he's the soldier as tough liberal. Just imagine Clark, with his distinguished military record, up against our draft dodger president who likes to play "Top Gun" dress-up. Imagine the Rhodes Scholar against the leader who can't ad lib without a speechwriting staff. Oh, and he's from Arkansas.

The draft-Clark people have already raised over a million dollars. Clark's not-yet-announced campaign is the second Internet phenomenon this year, after Howard Dean's. If he declares, Clark will have lots of volunteers and donors. Like John McCain, he'd be a terrific draw for political independents. Except he's a Democrat. The downside is that it's hard to get into the race this late. A lot of the fund-raisers and campaign professionals are already committed.

Bobby Kennedy jumped into the 1968 presidential campaign a lot later, after the February New Hampshire primary, when Eugene McCarthy proved that LBJ was vulnerable. But that was a different era and he was Bobby Kennedy. On the other hand, a lot of the support for the existing candidates is soft, with the exception of Dean's. Some of Dick Gephardt's own closest backers wonder if he can really do it, and that also goes for John Kerry, Joseph Lieberman and John Edwards.

This year, just about everyone engaged in Democratic politics has a higher commitment to the goal of ousting George Bush than to any single Democratic candidate. Clark could probably peel off a lot of donors and campaign professionals -- and grow some new ones. And, as candidates drop out, many professionals will soon be looking for work.

If Clark gets in, Kerry would be hurt the most, because Kerry is most like Clark. His military record and defense expertise make him the most bullet-proof of the Democratic field on national security issues. But, paradoxically, Dean might be hurt, too. Dean has been the favorite of the antiwar activists and he's also the freshest face. Clark is an antiwar candidate and a former four-star general and an even fresher face. As someone who's not an identified liberal from a conservative part of the country, he'd also pull votes from Lieberman, Edwards, and Graham.

Who might Clark pick as a running mate? Someone with domestic political experience: a Western or Midwestern governor or senator. Maybe New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a former Clinton Cabinet official and a Hispanic. Or how about Michigan's effective and popular governor, Jennifer Granholm? Or Illinois Senator Dick Durbin?

Dwight Eisenhower was the last general to make it to the White House. He could have had the nomination of either party. He decided that he was a Republican, but he governed as an old-fashioned moderate, and he was phenomenally popular.

Now all of this may just be an August sunstroke fantasy. We'll soon find out. And if Clark doesn't get in, he'd make one fine vice presidential candidate for any of the bunch.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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