Battle Shy?

In the spirit of Bertolt Brecht's maxim that an unpopular government would do well to elect a new people, Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman have opted to bypass the Iowa primary. In Lieberman's case, this is probably a misdiagnosis: The Connecticut senator's problems may be less with Iowans than with Democrats, many of whom remain unswayed by the one candidate in the Democratic field whom they view as Bush-lite.

Clark's retreat is another matter altogether; his problem is not that he's lite, but late. The universe of the Iowa caucuses is a finite one, and by the time Clark got to Iowa, most of the players had already chosen sides. One Clark adviser compared the campaign's decision to go straight to New Hampshire with the Allied strategy of island-hopping in World War II -- electing to fight only on the most advantageous or unavoidable battlegrounds.

Island-hopping, or Iowa-hopping, is one thing, however. Issue-hopping is quite something else. For a few days last week, Clark took the position that, because he wasn't running for a congressional seat, he didn't have to take a position on the administration's proposal, then pending in Congress, to appropriate $87 billion for postwar Iraq.

At one level, Clark was simply avoiding a political trap that the White House had set. The administration's stewardship of postwar Iraq has been an unholy mix of arrogance, improvisation and deception, and its failure to provide any additional funding for this mega-project only makes the funding of needed projects here at home all the more unlikely. But with the White House dismissing all efforts to make its reconstruction of Iraq more accountable and sustainable, Democrats (and some reluctant Republicans) were forced to choose between gratuitously funding a dubious occupation or voting against money both for U.S. troops and the needed work of reconstruction. No wonder Clark took a pass.

But if there's one thing a candidate for president can't do, it's issue-hop -- especially when that candidate is a political newcomer whose public identity is still jelling. Much of Clark's considerable appeal, after all, derives from the sense he conveys that his commitment to democratic values is deeper and tougher than the president's. "Democracy demands dialogue," he said in a talk last week at Hunter College. "It demands discussion and disagreement and dissent. And there is nothing -- nothing -- more patriotic than speaking out, questioning authority and holding your leaders accountable, whether in a time of peace or a time of war."

You can't hold a leader accountable, though, if he ducks the tough questions. Clark did amend his non-position after a couple of days, saying that "Congress should send the president's request back to the drawing board." But the entire episode only dramatized the gap that's developed between the articulate, center-left multilateralist and the stammering, back-tracking self-reinventor.

A lot of Clark's miscues are rookie mistakes, though the sheer number of them does pose questions about just what all those old Clinton hands now staffing the Clark campaign are actually doing. But there's something else about the particular Clintonistas who've gone to work for Clark that may pose problems for the general as well. Mickey Kantor, Eli Segal and other leaders of the Clark campaign played important roles in Clinton's 1992 victory, but they were not the figures on that campaign who provided Clinton with his populist punch. It was consultants James Carville and Paul Begala and pollster Stan Greenberg who helped turn Clinton into a tribune for millions of anxious Americans during the First Bush recession.

Clark has gathered around himself a number of very able operatives, but none who has contributed notably to the kind of working- and middle-class populist campaigns that the Democrats need to run next year in the wake of Bush Recession Two. With the hemorrhage of manufacturing jobs and the growing number of back-office and professional jobs being sent abroad as well, anxiety about the nation's economic and trade policies has spread well beyond the industrial Midwest. Indeed, Arnold Schwarzenegger had a couple of paragraphs about job loss in his stump speeches during the recent recall campaign that could be dropped into a broadside against George W. Bush without changing so much as a word.

In this political context, Clark may be handicapped less by his Republican dalliances than by his brief, post-Army career as an investment banker -- an occupation in which you can actually make money by shipping the jobs of American riveters and radiologists abroad. To his credit, Clark advocates trade agreements that guarantee worker rights and environmental and labor standards, but that's just the beginning. If Bush goes down, it will be because Americans want a president who will fight as hard for the grunts on the economic battlefield as he does for those in Iraq. That is Clark's, and the Democrats', challenge.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.

This column originally appeared in Wednesday's Washington Post.

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