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Feb 13, 2004 3:00 pm

The Clark Legacy

Today marks the last hurrah for the Wesley Clark campaign, as the former general will reportedly endorse John Kerry (although, apparently, not before attempting to spread some dirty rumors about Kerry’s personal life).

The Clark campaign strikes me as the most interesting aspect of the 2004 campaign. Here was a man who, one year ago, was all but unknown, and who had never before run for office. He was able to raise an enormous amount of money, and, with a couple of breaks, might have been a contender for the nomination—remember that Clark was rising fast in New Hampshire in the days before the Iowa caucus, and a different result in Iowa might have produced a Clark win in the Granite State.

Along with Kerry’s emphasis on his Vietnam War conduct, the Clark candidacy marks a sea change in the attitude of the Democratic Party toward the military. The previous two Democratic presidential candidates to stress their military accomplishments—John Glenn in 1984 and Bob Kerrey in 1992—saw their candidacies fizzle. Neither senator, it turned out, was a very accomplished national candidate, but the legacy of Vietnam played a role in their difficulties—suspicion of overseas military activities was a key part of the post-Watergate Democratic Party. Kerry’s and (to a lesser extent) Clark’s success suggests a new era, one attributable, it seems to me, only partly to 9-11. Clinton foreign policy played a role here as well—actions such as Kosovo and Bosnia suggested that military operations could promote human rights, removing some of the reflexive anti-militarism that had characterized 1970s and 1980s Democratic foreign policy.

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mark safranski - 2/13/2004

Possibly. If the Democratic Party were to reject the assumptions and suspicions about the military and American power that grew out of New Left critiques of the Vietnam war and the experiences of that era, that would truly be a good thing.

The Clinton administration, which was initially populated by aging doves like Tony Lake took many years to get over their allergic reaction toward the Pentagon, CIA and intervention with tragic consequences for Somalis, Bosnians and Rwandans. That they finally did so in Kosovo was to their credit and if the lesson learned was permanent for the Democrats it would help in restoring a " vital center " to American foreign policy. Lurching from liberal isolationism to neconservative interventionism with each election would be quite an extreme pendular swing for the rest of the world to take on a regular basis.

On the other hand, you can read both of the Kerry and Clark candidacies as the antiwar/critical liberal activists at the grassroots simply bowing to the reality that their attitude is not a political winner after 9/11 and a candidate with military experience would allay the fears of moderate voters. I also wonder if the strong desire to get rid of George Bush at any cost is not driving this relative cultural moderation as well. With a different GOP incumbent you very well might have found different Democratic candidates with non-military backgrounds swamping Kerry and especially Clark.


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