The media shorthand for retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s much-anticipated presidential candidacy made him the “antiwar warrior,” a military man fully aware of the folly of George Bush’s Iraq war. But Clark rewrote the shorthand in the first hours of his campaign with a series of pronouncements that suggested he had completely misread the grassroots enthusiasm for his candidacy. Asked whether he would have voted for the October 2002 Congressional resolution that authorized the United States to invade Iraq, Clark replied, “At the time, I probably would have voted for it, but I think that’s too simple a question.” It certainly wasn’t a simple question for Clark. A day later, he was still struggling with it, telling a reporter in Iowa, “Let’s make one thing real clear–I would never have voted for this war, never.” He then proceeded to say, “I would have voted for the right kind of leverage to get a diplomatic solution, an international solution to the challenge of Saddam Hussein.” So, while Clark would never have voted for war, he would have voted for the resolution Bush used as his authorization to launch the war. For good measure, Clark explained that he had “a very consistent record on this.”
Clark is the only Rhodes scholar in the race, but his bungling of what should have been his strongest issue suggests that he doesn’t quite understand why so many grassroots Democrats wanted to draft the man who, as a CNN commentator, regularly criticized the Bush Administration’s rush to war. The question the general dismissed as “too simple” is a defining measure for much of the party’s base. After the majority of Congressional Democrats voted against the war resolution, Howard Dean used his outspoken opposition to position himself as the most genuinely anti-Bush candidate. Dean dismissed Democrats who supported the resolution–Representative Dick Gephardt and Senators John Kerry, John Edwards and Joe Lieberman–with the line, “I question the judgment of those who led us into this conflict….” Kerry aides contend that had their candidate voted differently, Dean would never have gotten traction. And they’re probably right.
Dean has been reasonably steady in his opposition to the war, but the man who says “I don’t even consider myself a dove” has taken hits for his willingness to keep US troops in Iraq for an extended period. Representative Dennis Kucinich–who with Florida Senator Bob Graham voted against the resolution–is the most consistent “bring the troops home” candidate. Yet the Washington Post, like most other major media, persists in pegging Dean as “the most visible Democratic candidate to oppose the war in Iraq.” It looked like Clark might wrestle that mantle away from him, but then the general opened his mouth.
Endorsement of the Week: The International Association of Fire Fighters–a union with an awesome political action operation (Al Gore hailed the firefighters as his best backers in 2000) and loads of post-9/11 street cred–has endorsed Kerry. A factor: Vermont firefighters gave Dean low marks because they said that as governor, he failed to push their legislative initiatives. A good bet: With firefighters backing Kerry, Gephardt’s chances of securing an AFL-CIO endorsement dwindle.