I Doubt Clark Will Beat Dean

General Amnesty (washingtonpost.com)
Michael Kinsley has written a great column here. He’s also, unintentionally, described the problem with President Bush from a right-winger’s perspective.

Kinsley is accusing Democrats of going after the candidate that’s the least acceptable, but still tolerable, to their base in the hope of getting the votes of people they will never get. I don’t know how well this applies to Clark, but it describes several of President Bush’s moves and it’s just as perplexing. Prescription drug benefit. A Ted Kennedy education bill. Waffling on Israel. Massive increases in spending not related to the military or homeland security, and so on.

I’ve seen Clark speak and it amazes me how much he sounds like W. Really, the exact same accent and he’s just as articulate. He may be a Rhodes Scholar, but you’d never know it from hearing him speak. To make matters worse, he doesn’t even seem to know what he believes. Read Kinsley’s litany: pro-health care? What the hell is that?

I’m not writing this because I think it will change one Democrat’s mind, nor do I see Clark as that much of a threat. Dean is more articulate and I’ve always said the Bush Administration underestimates him at their peril. If the Democrats must have a military man to build up their credentials, why not “John Kerry, the haughty, French-looking Massachusetts Democrat, who by the way served in Vietnam”? I would seriously consider voting for him if I were sure the Congress would stay in Republican control.

But the current liberal swooning over (retired) generals is truly something new. A widespread fantasy among liberals who loathe the Bush administration, for example, is that Colin Powell will resign as secretary of state and “say what he really thinks.” This will bring down the whole house of cards, these liberals believe. What he really thinks, they think, is more or less what they really think.

There is not much basis for this belief. Powell is skilled at distancing himself from certain policies without seeming disloyal. But if he really were as opposed to the administration he serves as these liberal fantasists imagine, a resignation now would come much too late to have any moral force.

Then there is retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Much of his support comes from people who think they haven’t swooned themselves but believe that others will do so. But most of these people are in a swoon whether they realize it or not. They think that Clark has the best chance of defeating George Bush and that nothing else matters. Their assessment is based on what seems to me a simple-minded view that you can place all the candidates on a political spectrum, then pick the one who’s as far toward the other side as your side can bear, and call it pragmatism.

How pragmatic is it, though, to snub the one candidate who seems to be able to get people’s juices flowing — that would be Howard Dean — in favor of one with nothing interesting to say, on the theory that this, plus the uniform stashed in the back of his closet, will make him appealing to people you disagree with? When the odds are against you, as they are for the Democrats in 2004, caution and calculation can be the opposite of pragmatism.

Clark might have been joking when he said he’s only a Democrat because Karl Rove, the Bush White House Rasputin, wouldn’t return his phone calls. But Clark’s serious explanation, in a speech last week to the Democratic National Committee, isn’t much better. He says he was appropriately apolitical during his military career, but three years ago “when I left the Army, I looked at the parties and the differences couldn’t have been more clear.” He is, he says, “pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment, pro-health care and pro-labor,” reciting the party catechism by rote, and offering no details. What [he might say “what the hell”, here — ED.] does it even mean to be “pro-health care”?

So the general got off his horse, gazed at the landscape, and decided to grant the gift of his person to the Democrats. By now he’s got the basic philosophy down pat, and he has his people working to flesh out the programmatic stuff. Furthermore, he knows who to go to. “He listens to so-and-so,” Clark supporters reassure doubters. There is no doubt that a President Clark would have sound, mainstream-liberal policies on all matters, reflecting the best thinking of the finest minds in every field. He may not yet know what he thinks about school vouchers, or Medicare reform, or Israeli settlements in occupied territory. But I know.

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