In the presidential candidacy of Wesley Clark, the Athenian party in American politics may just have found its Spartan.
The meteoric ascent of the former NATO commander is scrambling all the normal alignments within the Democratic Party and some of those without.
Whether Clark can sustain his initial momentum is anybody's guess; his first week as a candidate was a triumphal parade interrupted by the occasional self-inflicted wound. But for now, many of the longstanding battlements that have divided the Democrats for decades seem to have crumbled before him.
Clark's legions include Democrats more accustomed to attacking one another than joining in common cause. Satirist and anti-Iraqi war activist Michael Moore has written a testimonial to Clark; so has Iraqi war proponent Jonathan Chait of The New Republic. Naderites of '00 have told me they're going Clark in '04; so have some Democrats who want to save the party from the specter of Howard Dean.
As Clark's campaign team begins to take shape, it seems likely that aides to Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and onetime Clinton and Gore staffers will get many key positions. That Clark's candidacy is in need of professional management is beyond dispute, but the general runs the risk of losing his insurgent appeal if he permits himself to be cast as the candidate from Party Central. The rifts that have already arisen between the Draft-Clark amateurs and the McAuliffe pros are inevitable and containable.
But if Clark ends up positioned as the anti-Dean candidate, the consequences could prove more severe.
Indeed, the relation of Clark's campaign to Dean's bears some resemblances to that of Robert Kennedy's to Eugene McCarthy's back in 1968, another year when antiwar sentiment swept the Democratic Party. It was McCarthy who plunged into that race first, when Lyndon Johnson was thought to be unassailable, and McCarthy who caught fire with Democratic liberals increasingly angered by Johnson's deepening involvement in the Vietnam War.
Only after the Tet offensive and McCarthy's initial electoral success in New Hampshire did Bobby Kennedy announce that he, too, was running for president on an antiwar platform, arguing that he was a far more electable candidate than McCarthy.
The dynamic between the two campaigns was awkward at best; some McCarthy supporters switched camps, and the bitterness within the McCarthy ranks swelled as Kennedy began winning primaries. Kennedy himself was always cognizant, however, that he'd need the McCarthy volunteers after the primary season ended and calibrated his comments to that end.
Clark now faces a challenge similar to Kennedy's: how to campaign as a largely antiwar candidate, and the more electable one at that, without estranging the legions of Dean supporters who believe, as Gene McCarthy's followers once did, that their guy is the genuine article. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination is going to need Dean's volunteers, and Clark best positions himself to claim them by making the kind of speech he delivered at the Citadel on Monday, affirming an America that welcomes dissent in wartime and understands that unilateralism is a strategic dead end. Having his potential handlers proclaim that he's the Stop-Dean candidate, by contrast, would undercut his appeal to many of his own supporters, let alone Dean's.
Clark's rise in the polls does seem to have stopped some other Democratic candidacies dead in their tracks. The odds that Dick Gephardt will receive the AFL-CIO's endorsement in October, or at all, have diminished sharply in the past few days. With Clark's entry, a growing number of union presidents now believe that endorsing Gephardt looks more like a reciprocation of loyalty than a viable political strategy. Similarly, Clark's entrance eclipsed not only John Edwards' declaration of candidacy but the raison d'etre for his candidacy -- having a southerner atop the ticket -- as well. The Kerry candidacy's raison d'etre has been shaken somewhat, too; Kerry and Edwards, with the rest of the gang of nine, are left hoping that Clark turns out to be a flop on the stump.
As a sudden, midlife entrant to the highest levels of electoral politics, however, Clark comes to the race with no political staff of his own. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he looks to be surrounding himself with another leader's entourage -- in Arnold's case, that of California's last Republican governor; in Clark's, that of the last Democratic president. But Pete Wilson's staffers have served Schwarzenegger poorly; they damaged his prospects with Latino voters by trumpeting his embrace of Wilson's 1994 anti-immigrant Proposition 187, which Arnold had supported when it was on the ballot but later turned against.
Clark needs to be concerned that the Clinton-McAuliffe insiders don't turn him into the last, best hope to stop the Dean hordes. The first Democratic candidate in decades to enter the race with support from all quadrants of the party doesn't need a diversionary conflict within its ranks. And if nothing else, Clark looks like a guy who knows how to pick his wars.
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.
This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.
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