Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Elegy for Wes

So Wes Clark has dropped out. Having watched various Clark appearances on C-SPAN, I couldn't help but think he still would be the strongest general election candidate, had he been given the chance. The reasons why I supported initially remained: He still has by far the most glowing resume and politically attractive biography of the contenders; he has a keen understanding of foreign policy and was a quick study on domestic issues; he's a good speaker who has improved markedly in stump speaking and debating in four months time; *and* he was against the Cheney/Wolfowitz War. Unlike Dean and Kerry, he remains the candidate most resistant to Republican smears. Unlike Dean and Edwards, he'll be credible on national security matters. Unlike everyone else, his history of political independence will actually help him in the general election with swing voters. And unlike Kerry (but like Edwards and Dean), he'll give people a reason to vote for him instead of merely against Bush.

But what Ryan Lizza says here is right on: Clark's candidacy hinged on being the electable anti-Dean, and once Dean self-destructed, Clark never really found his bearings.

Ironically, Clark suffered the same problems that Dean suffered: namely, in a primary season where the press and the voters are concentrating solely on "electability" and the horse race, harmless "gaffes" are magnified into headline events, to be dissected endlessly by the likes of Howard Fineman and Peggy Noonan. Unlike Edwards, Kerry and Gephardt, experienced pols who stick rigidly to talking points, Dean and Clark were repeatedly victimized by the press as "gaffe-proned" candidates used to soul-deadening repetition. Dean's "missteps" seem to be the result of an impulsive need to live dangerously, an impulse cheered by Deaniacs as a sign of authenticity. But it was refreshing, the way McCain's candor in 2000 was refreshing in a sea of campaign robots. Clark's problem isn't so much candor as inexperience, an inexperience that was highlighted in instances when he tried too hard to prove his Democratic party bona fides to primary voters. Clark over-corrected by being way too emphatic, such as guaranteeing no terrorist attacks or opposing any limits on abortion. And his notorious arrogance would flare up on occasion, like his "Kerry's a Lieutenant, I'm a general" remark.

But those infractions hardly doomed him, because they didn't get much play in the media. There was seemingly a blackout of Clark soon after Iowa through no fault of his own. Clark was written off after he began to fade in New Hampshire after the Iowa surprise. Quite simply, General Clark was the wrong man at the wrong time. His candidacy didn't offer that contrast with Kerry that the reporters craved, and it was lost in the stories of Dean's collapse. Clark might've been able to kickstart his stalled campaign by a strong debate performance, which has proven to be the last key event of the Democratic primary season. But in that crappily moderated debate, the General was inundated with ridiculous "gotcha" questions ("Michael Moore said the President was a deserter. Why have you not denounced this slander on the President?") while Kerry was lobbed softballs. That faltering performance, unfair or not, doomed the General's candidacy in NH. Afterwards, the media saddled him with the "not ready for prime time" tag by the pundits, a charge he couldn't shake even though he was often terrific in town hall venues and in the South Carolina debate.

After NH, there were three main storylines: Kerry's emergence as frontrunner, Dean's collapse, and the Kerry v. Edwards showdown in South Carolina. Lost amongst this was Clark, who was tabbed as an also-ran after "finishing a distant third in NH despite campaigning unopposed for two weeks." Funny thing is, if the media spun his finish another way, "Clark finished third despite entering the race late, catching up to candidates who've spent a year in the Granite State. Now the campaign moves to the South where Clark, as the most organized and well-funded Southern candidate, may emerge as Kerry's strongest threat. " But the Clark stories had run its course, and the Edwards stories were fresher, as was his candidacy.

After NH, Kerry became the "strongest candidate" in the minds of primary voters who barely got a look at him. And Clark managed only to damage Edwards by beating him in Oklahoma and splitting the vote in Tennessee. Now the race is pretty much called. Now Clark will return to Arkansas, wondering what might've been had he:

- decided to contest Iowa. Given his money and publicity at the time, he might've finished where Edwards did.
- did better in the NH debate. Had Clark finished at 18% or so, he might've emerged as Kerry's primary challenger.

Too bad. The CW after Iowa was that the results hurt Dean and Clark most. It's one time that the CW was right on the money. And the Democratic Party, I think, will suffer as a result.