It didn't take long for people to start conjuring the ghost of Bill Clinton in the person of Wesley Clark. In fact, long before Clark declared his candidacy, supporters and detractors alike were mining the similarities between the two men -- both Rhodes Scholars and Arkansas natives -- for deeper significance. Ironically, both liberals and conservatives seem eager to tag Clark with Clinton's imprimatur -- liberals because they long for a candidate with Clinton's political skill, conservatives because they want a Democrat with Clinton's political vulnerabilities. But both camps are probably engaged in a little bit of wishful thinking.
Clinton has encouraged such commentary by appearing to play a behind-the-scenes role in Clark's rise. "While I cannot take sides in the Democratic primary, I believe Wes, if he runs, would make a valuable contribution because he understands America's security challenges and domestic priorities," Clinton told The Associated Press in June. "I believe he would make a good president." Hillary Clinton's rumored decision to serve as co-chair of Clark's campaign hasn't done anything to quell talk of a link between the Clintons and Clark, nor has the fact that former Clinton operatives, such as Mickey Kantor and Mark Fabiani, will apparently form the backbone of Clark's staff.
Republicans are seeking to exploit the situation for all it's worth. Earlier this month, Matthew Continetti wrote of Clark in The Weekly Standard: "He's a slippery character whose public statements remind you of a fellow Rhodes scholar from Arkansas. It turns out that Clark's supporters compare the general to the wrong president. Clark is more Clinton than [Dwight] Eisenhower." And National Review Online argued today that Hillary Clinton would seek to become Clark's running mate. "If Mrs. Clinton wants to be president, she'll want to be on the Clark ticket," wrote Peter Augustine Lawler, a professor at Berry College.
But a Rhodes Scholarship and Arkansan heritage do not a politician make. The reality is that while Clark and Clinton have some superficial attributes in common -- and while they seem to respect each other -- they are, for better and for worse, very different men.
Though Clark enters the race for the nomination with considerable foreign-policy expertise, he has much to learn about domestic affairs -- the reverse of Clinton's situation in 1992. Clark's late entrance leaves him little time to publicly hash out his strategies for reducing the huge federal deficit or curtailing the flight of manufacturing jobs overseas. And recent polls show that Americans are most concerned about the economy, an area in which Clark has no experience. Clinton, by contrast, anchored his 1992 campaign to a comprehensive economic-stimulus package -- and with it he traveled the country, feeling other people's pain in the face of a recession.
That may be the starkest difference between Clark and Clinton: the empathy factor. Seeking to drum up support for embattled Gov. Gray Davis (D-Calif.) last week, Clinton took to the pulpit in the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. His oratory drew "amens" from the congregation, while his mere presence in the church generated enthusiastic applause.
The former general is a smart guy, and he may prove capable of mastering a steep political learning curve -- but for now it is difficult to picture him wowing an audience in a similar setting. Voters will likely appreciate his stoic military persona during debates on foreign policy and national security. But to connect with laid-off factory workers or retirees facing rising health-care costs, Clark will have to convince people that he is compassionate and understanding. Based on his stiff performance in Little Rock yesterday, he has a lot of work ahead of him.
Clark may not be Clinton reincarnate, but he doesn't have to be to win the Democratic nomination. With troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, Clark's military expertise would not lie fallow should he make it to the White House. His intelligence and strategic acumen are nearly universally acknowledged; they suggest that he could learn quickly how to manage domestic affairs. And while he may not look comfortable shaking hands and kissing babies quite yet, voters are discerning creatures. They don't necessarily need their leaders to be brilliant orators or perfect political specimens. (Exhibit A is our current president.) Unlike Clinton, Clark doesn't seem like a politician. In the long run, that could prove to be an advantage rather than a liability.
And to the extent that a Clark-Clinton connection does exist, it could yet pay big dividends for Clark. A few months into the campaign, he may find that he needs pointers on Bible thumping and preaching to the choir. At least the former general will know whom to call.
Ayelish McGarvey is a Prospect writing fellow.
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