Count me among the skeptics as to whether a politically untested general can successfully run the gauntlet of a Democratic presidential-primary campaign in America today. The organizational confusion, inconsistent statements and other troubles that beset Wesley Clark in the first weeks of his campaign all testified to his lack of political experience.
But count me also a believer in the potential payoff in reframing the national political debate if Clark allays these early concerns and captures the Democratic nomination. To many in the party, the chief appeal of the retired general is that he insulates Democrats from charges of being unpatriotic or weak on national security. Yet on domestic issues, Clark's military background may also prove an important, unanticipated asset.
During the past several decades, the American military has become a model of successful social reform. Perhaps the best example is racial integration. While many other institutions remain nearly as segregated today as they were before the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s, the armed services have undergone a transformation. Officers are evaluated for promotion partly on the basis of their handling of race relations, and the military has emerged as one of the most influential defenders of affirmative action.
The introduction of women into the military has also led the services to create child care and other family-oriented programs that are far in advance of what corporate America typically offers. Military training and career ladders provide models of workforce improvement. And, of course, the military has long offered generous health-care and retirement benefits.
In many other countries, particularly in the developing world, the military has played a socially progressive role. Most of us are not used to thinking of the American military that way, and, indeed, the top echelons of the armed forces have been overwhelmingly Republican and conservative. But the social changes within the military have moved it in a more liberal direction. As a result, the significance of a general in American politics is entirely different today from what it would be if the armed forces remained a segregated bastion of social conservatism.
In other words, it's not just that Clark's military background gives him credibility on national defense. It may also give him credibility on a variety of social issues that the armed forces have addressed. And because of the respect that the military enjoys with much of the public that is otherwise disenchanted with the federal government, Clark may be able to communicate with voters who would otherwise be unreachable by a Democratic candidate.
Clark also needs to connect his military experience to his advocacy of Democratic programs in order to present a coherent narrative of his own political evolution. He says he voted for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and, as recently as 2001, he appeared at a Republican fund raiser. While he's voiced support for Democratic ideas and policies, his recent entry into the Democratic Party risks seeming opportunistic unless he can provide a better explanation than he has so far of his current positions.
The military's record in affirmative action, changing women's roles, child care, health care and other programs can serve him as a credible basis for explaining his decision to enter politics as a Democrat. He can say, "I learned from our success: We made these ideas work in the armed forces, and I can help make them work for America."
Whether Clark will draw on his military background this way is as yet unclear. And even if he does, he will need to spell out his views on economic policy and other questions that don't have clear analogs in the military. At this point, Clark is a Rorschach test for observers. He may not actually be the kind of candidate many of his supporters hope he is or project that he will become. The path to the Democratic nomination is strewn with land mines, and several of them may blow up in Clark's face as he threads his way through the treacherous landscape.
But the potential is there for a credible reframing of the Democratic argument on both foreign and domestic affairs. The Democrats don't just need a strong candidate; they need a candidate who can make their case in a fresh and forceful way. Clark might just be able to do that.