Meet Mr. Credibility

The Democrats, as we know, have many political problems: their uncertainty, their inability to trade jabs with the Republicans, their likely minority status in Congress for some time to come. Checked out a map yet of which senators are up in 2004? Let's just say that if you're not sure you can take much more depressing news, don't. But oddly enough, they don't have that many policy problems. Majorities in polls repeatedly are closer to the Democrats on abortion rights, environmental protection and a tendency toward deficit hawkishness rather than tax cuts.

But there is one issue, or set of issues, where polls show Democrats having all the credibility of Cardinal Law on sex: On national security and defense, the Republican advantage is enormous. This perception goes back 30 years or so. In many ways, it's no longer as true now as it was then. Bill Clinton helped liberate Kosovo and, however belatedly, Bosnia. The candidate who received the most votes in the 2000 presidential election was the one who enlisted in the Army and insisted on being sent to Vietnam (Al Gore), not the one who ducked and covered with a reportedly incomplete term of service in the Air National Guard (George W. Bush).

But the hardwired image of Republicans being stronger on national security persists in the public mind. Bush's midterm election rhetoric about Democrats being soft on homeland security may not have enjoyed the benefit of actually being true, but it sounded all too believable to a country where fear is still driving the body politic. In a post-September 11 world, where the threats to America are real and serious, it's of critical importance that Democrats establish some credibility in this realm.

The rumored presidential bid of retired Gen. Wesley Clark, bandied about mostly in inside-dope items in the press over the last three months, may or may not materialize. The considered judgments of rumor-mill initiates run the gamut from "slim chance" to "almost certainly." For his own part, Clark keeps it vague. "A lot of people have come to me and talked about the need for leadership," he said in an interview, "but I haven't made any plans. I haven't raised money or formed any committees." Whether Clark runs or not -- and if he doesn't, he seems like a vice-presidential candidate sent from God, which may be the real angle he's playing -- his mere presence on the national stage, his coming out of the closet, as it were, as a functional Democrat who opposes the administration's war aims and who just happens to have been a NATO commander, could instantly make the Democratic Party more plausible on foreign affairs than it's been at any time since a general named George Catlett Marshall was containing communism and rebuilding Europe with a president named Harry Truman. "I think it's safe to say," says former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, "that the supreme allied commander of NATO has a certain credibility on military affairs that is not usually associated with members of the Democratic Party."

Think Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) looks good because he fought in a war? Well, check Clark out. Clark, now 58, fought in Vietnam, too, of course, but that was just his stretching routine. He won a war. He was NATO commander during the Kosovo operation. Granted, this may not be the military equivalent of beating back Adolf Hitler. But it arguably is something of a moral equivalent in that it led to the downfall of a Hitler manqué in the person of Slobodan Milosevic. It was, however sliced, a successful, multilateral mission that largely achieved its objectives, both military and political. And the Kosovo campaign was merely the most recent in a long line of Clark's feats. After graduating from high school in Little Rock, Ark., in 1962, he went to West Point, where he finished first in his class; after that, to Oxford University, where he earned a master's degree in philosophy, politics and economics as a Rhodes Scholar (an Arkansas Rhodes Scholar, eh?); to Vietnam in the late 1960s; thence up the ladder, all the way to NATO command, which Bill Clinton bestowed on him in 1997. Although both from Arkansas, Clinton and Clark first met, Clark says, at a 1965 student leadership conference while both were in college. Since then, Clark has won the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and more accolades and decorations than Secretariat.

So there's all that. And there's this: He votes Democratic. In Arkansas most voters enroll with no party affiliation; you show up on primary day and select the ballot of whichever party you want to support. Clark told me he voted in the Democratic primary in last year's state elections. He seriously considered seeking the Democratic nomination for governor of Arkansas in 2002, challenging Republican incumbent Mike Huckabee. He told me in an interview that he favors both abortion rights and affirmative action. We spoke just after the Bush administration filed its brief against the University of Michigan's admissions policy, and Clark said he was "surprised and dismayed" by the president's decision. He has "tremendous regard" for the Clintons. And, just as a little sweetener for the culture department, he quotes Bob Dylan toward the end of his book, Waging Modern War, and writes affectionately about the protest folk music that he used to love to listen to as a young man.

But still none of these facts, salient as they may be to Democrats, gets to the heart of Clarkism, which is this: As viewers of his regular appearances on CNN know, Clark has emerged as a ferocious critic of the Bush administration's national-security policy. To Clark, the administration has not made even a version of a case against Iraq. Iran and North Korea are obviously bigger and more immediate threats. And the administration's cowboy unilateralism, he says, goes against everything the United States is supposed to represent to the world. "After 9-11, who are we?" he asked me. "Are we going to be an angry, beleaguered giant swatting out at selected nations with our sword of vengeance? Are we going to be Daddy Warbucks handing out money? What are we?"

He has a rhetorical answer, if not quite a fully fleshed-out policy, which we'll get to. But even at this early, uncertain juncture, it can safely be said that the prospect of a Wesley Clark presidential candidacy is tantalizing. There isn't much doubt that he's giving it some serious thought. Just before Thanksgiving, he had a lunch meeting with a group of New York Democrats led by investment adviser Alan J. Patricof, who headed Hillary Clinton's financial campaign in 2000. (Time magazine got wind of this, and its item started the Clark boomlet.) The group included prominent New York Democrats who customarily receive Democratic presidential candidates who hit town; this same klatch, or a near version of it, auditioned Bill Clinton in 1991. "Oh, my impression was that he's very seriously considering it," one member told me. "He said he's not ready to announce yet because he doesn't want to leave CNN" where his criticisms of Bush receive their maximum exposure. "But he sure seemed serious to me."

Other Democratic insiders, several in the Clinton circle, agreed. I spoke with one about Clark's mid-January lunch with Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, which happened at Clark's behest. This insider spoke with McAuliffe about the Clark lunch and said, "Terry's view is that he's very seriously considering it. Now there's serious, and there's serious, so who knows, but Terry thought it was pretty real."

Of course, a few conversations may be only that, and it's obviously true that rumors can get converted into fact or elevated beyond their reality in no time. There were reports that Clark had met with the Democratic Leadership Council's (DLC) Al From; the DLC's Karin Kullman says that Clark has spoken at council forums on military policy, not talked political turkey with From. Also, according to press reports, he had talks with former Gore campaign aide Donna Brazile, but Clark says the conversation was the result of an accidental meeting in a green room at CNN. ("But I've known Donna for many years," he says, "and she's always been one who has told me, 'You should run for something one day.'")

So it's far from clear that there's a there there. And Clark's not saying -- yet. But another source indicates that Clark may be planning an announcement around April. When a noncandidate says something like, "I've always hoped I would someday be able to go into elective office," which he said to me, it's probably a signal of something.

Clark had several chats last year with Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Ron Oliver about the possibility of taking on Huckabee for the governorship. "It was 2001 when his name started popping up," says Michael Cook, the party's executive director in Arkansas. "He and Ron had a series of discussions." Clark took a pass, obviously; but equally obviously, he had caught the bug.

If Clark runs, his clear raison d'être would be to articulate a more tenable opposition to Cheneyism than the other Democrats can. "The issue to me has been that we have known for a long time that Osama bin Laden is a problem," he says. "The difficulty was always to mobilize the American people and bring enough comprehensive pressure to bear to do something against terrorism. Well, 9-11 did that. But the administration has squandered a lot of the international goodwill that came our way after the attacks and is now squandering our domestic energy by forcing us into Iraq."

For which, he argues, there is no honest military or diplomatic rationale. "The Iranians are further along with regard to nuclear weapons," he says. "The North Koreans are much further along. Iraq is third. We went after this in a reverse order. ... They chose Iraq as a problem before they explained what the problem was."

The substance of Clark's critique of the Bush foreign policy hinges chiefly on two assertions. First, that the administration has offered competing -- sometimes, in Clark's view, dodgy -- rationales for an invasion of Iraq and therefore has not adequately or properly unified the American public behind the idea. He gives the administration points for having done this well with regard to al-Qaeda, which he regards as the more important war to be waging right now. But on Iraq, he says, a rationale for attacking now has "never been clearly and decisively articulated."

Second, Clark feels that if the administration's efforts with regard to U.S. public opinion have been wanting, its attempts to change world opinion have ranged from halfhearted to downright hostile. He disdains the administration's unilateralist bent both as a moral matter -- preemptive war, he says, is something the United States could always do if it needed to, "but we never made it a principle" -- and on the strategic grounds that antagonizing old allies will come back to bite us one day.

"Terrorism is a multilateral problem," Clark says. "You cannot defeat it in one nation. You need international police work, teamwork, international harmonization of laws against terror, a whole series of things. You act unilaterally, you lose the commitment of your allies to make it work. That's the one thing that will kill you in the war on terrorism."

That should ring true to voters coming from a four-star general whose experience has taken him as high up the military and diplomatic chains of command as a person can go. But he will also need to put more meat on the bones of a real alternative vision. If Clark were president, how would he handle Saddam Hussein? He would do what exactly in North Korea? How would he bring about that harmonization of laws? He speaks beautifully of basing the United States' role in the world on an articulation of the nation's better principles: "The United States is a 225-year rolling revolution. ... We are the embodiment of the Enlightenment. If we're true to those principles, then it's a foreign policy of generosity, humility, engagement and of course force where it is needed. But as a last resort." As a candidate, though, he will be asked to cast himself into specific situations, involving not a few nasty fellows whose use for our principles is scant indeed.

Two more things. First, Clark would have to be a pol. Can he connect with people? The man I spoke with was intelligent, direct and forceful. But qualities such as neighborly, empathetic and humble tend to work better in presidential campaigns. And does he have any idea what campaigns do? "I'm sure he knows that Iowa is a caucus state," says a Democratic operative. "But does he know what that means in terms of the organization required, which is immense? He's been a commander, so he's used to giving orders and having people follow them. It's not quite that way in political campaigns."

Clark may benefit, interestingly, from some of the political infrastructure and know-how left behind in his home state by a certain other famous Arkansan. "Bill Clinton taught Arkansas how to win," says Skip Rutherford, who heads the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation. "We weren't exactly a presidential hotbed. Clinton changed that. Now a lot of Arkansans know what a presidential campaign is like. They've seen the demands and the requirements. There are a whole lot of people here who, if he ran, would immediately hop on board."

The second thing Clark would have to do if he runs: get votes. Let's assume that there are no sex or tax scandals, or what have you. Even if he vets clean, will Democratic primary voters give him backing? Surely many will agree with his foreign-policy views, but Democratic primary voters are used to voting on domestic issues, and they aren't used to voting for generals, even Dylan-quoting ones. And if Clark runs and fares poorly, if Democratic voters repudiate Mr. Cred., if, for example, they actually cast more votes for the Rev. Al Sharpton ... well, you can just imagine how much fun FOX News will have with that.

A party operative avers that Clark will need to declare himself by April or so (and there's the little business of his needing to raise about $10 million this year). So we'll see what we see. But whether as candidate, big-name veepstakes contender or even just prime-time convention speaker without portfolio, Wesley Clark can represent positive change for the Democratic Party. Are a general and the Democratic Party machinery, as currently constituted, a good match? That's the question. The answer, you might say, is blowin' in the wind.