Is Gen. Wesley Clark Out of Touch with Voters?

Originally posted: January 23, 2004

Two months ago, Gen. Wesley Clark executed a flanking maneuver on the Democratic presidential field. Leaving the other candidates to battle it out in the closest, most aggressively fought Iowa caucuses in memory, Clark deployed his troops to New Hampshire to engage later on more favorable turf.

Among Iowa Democrats, the Iraq war was deeply unpopular, and in his earliest forays, Clark fumbled that issue, saying first that he would have voted for the president’s resolution, then backtracking.

Also, Democrats who attend the caucuses are pretty much the hardest core of the party. When the general admitted voting for Nixon, Reagan and Bush the Father, his pedigree appeared suspect.

So decamping to New Hampshire made tactical sense for Clark. In the Granite State, independents make up a third of the electorate and can vote in either party’s primary.

Because there is nothing at stake on the Republican side, most independents will vote in the contest in which they can make a difference. Clark’s previous support of GOP presidents will bother them less.

Four months ago, few Americans had heard of Clark. In a presidential race, this gives the newcomer candidate the opportunity to fill in the blanks before his opponents do it for him. Clark has fashioned himself as a not-from-Washington outsider, a career soldier and patriot with strong national security credentials.

Within days of his announcement, a Newsweek poll showed Clark as the Democratic frontrunner, indicating the strength of that appeal in a post-9/11 world.

Clark is one of the few Democratic candidates to have made an appearance in Indiana. Only days after his announcement, he packed the DePauw University fieldhouse with students, faculty and Putnam County residents, Republicans and Democrats alike.

The general began his address with a description of his last duty post, Supreme Allied Commander of Europe. In charge of U.S. and NATO forces from Norway to South Africa, he had a communications staff of 100 and a private airfield with a DC-9 and two Blackhawk helicopters. The perks included two armored Mercedes limousines and a team of chauffeurs. He lived in a 19th-century Belgian château, with five gardeners and a circular drive so wide, said Clark, “I couldn’t hit a 7-iron across it.”

The audience was wowed by the elegance in which top military brass is accommodated. When he left the Army, involuntarily, Clark stepped into a job with a six-figure salary at a Little Rock, Ark., investment firm.

But it quickly became clear that, beyond foreign and military policy, Clark’s grasp of the issues is tenuous. He has a string of position papers on jobs, health care and taxes, but all are staff-generated, mainstream-Democratic boilerplate. When Clark discusses them, he seems to be clicking by rote through a mental checklist of issues, with no evidence of having personally bumped up against them. It is a message uninformed by experience, uninspired by passion.

This is a problem for Clark and its source is easy to pinpoint. For his 30-plus Army years, he has lived in a parallel universe from most Americans.

For example, when he returned to civilian life, Clark expressed surprise at how many ordinary citizens are not getting medical screenings for cholesterol or breast and colon cancer. Evidently, these are all routine at the rank of general. Had he stayed awhile in Putnam County, he would have learned that many in his blue-collar audience are struggling so hard with rising health-care costs that they are not getting their teeth fixed, let alone having high-tech tests.

It may not always appear on the list of credentials required for the Oval Office, but most voters want a president who really understands the way they live.

When George Bush the Father went to the supermarket and expressed surprise at the scanners at the cash register, it was a moment that registered indelibly in people’s minds. Many decided that Bush had been riding in the back seat of government limousines for too long.

Direct contact with ordinary voters is where good politicians find their passion. If Wesley Clark cannot convince the people that he understands and shares the problems they face, he will not win. Nor should he.

Ken Bode, a former CNN political analyst, is Pulliam Professor of Journalism at DePauw University


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