It’s the poll that’s got ’em all hot: Wesley K. Clark: 49 per cent; George W. Bush: 46 per cent. CNN and USA Today conducted it, and on air this week, listening to her ‘senior political analyst’ declare that ‘President Bush is sinking’, Judy Woodruff looked as if she wanted to do her Meg Ryan When Harry Met Sally impression: ‘Yes, yes! Oh, God!! Yes!!! Aaaooooowwwwaaaooah!!!!’
I’d say it’s the poll that’s faking it. It’s comprised of 1,003 ‘national adults’, of whom 877 are registered voters. Whether the others have ever voted at all is unknown. But, as a general rule, polls of registered voters are less accurate than polls of ‘likely voters’, and polls of just any old adults are less accurate than polls of registered voters. And, by ‘less accurate’, I mean they tend to overstate Democrat support. And, given that 48 per cent of the sample identified themselves as Democrats, what this poll seems to have found is that Clark attracts the 48 per cent you’d expect him to plus a barely detectable smidgeonette of the rest.
You’d almost have thought they did it that way to get that particular result, wouldn’t you? Well, all credit to them, they did. And we should allow Judy and co. their moment of triumph: they’ve finally got some ‘hard’ ‘evidence’ that Bush is a one-termer. For a year now, the Democratic nomination has been a battle between joke candidates, led by the Reverend Al Sharpton, and dull senators, led by John Kerry of Massachusetts. Vermont’s Howard Dean briefly caught the media’s fancy – he’s anti-war and from the only state with legal gay sorta-marriage. But, after a while, they began to notice that the more they talked up Dean the more the folks in the White House seemed to be falling around splitting their sides. So eventually they figured he was this year’s George McGovern, and they needed a new ‘None Of The Above’.
And here he is: General Wesley Clark. That’s what he is to the public at the moment: ‘None Of The Above’ in a General’s uniform. Once they get to know him and he joins the ranks of ‘The Above’, Democrats will be back to Square One looking for a new ‘None’. But for now no one knows a thing about him. In fact, he doesn’t seem to know much about him. One day, he’s pro-war. Next day, he’s anti-war. Then, just to clarify, he says he can go either way: ‘I’ve said it both ways because when you get into this, what happens is you have to put yourself in a position.’
And when a man has to put himself into a position, the best thing to do is call an aide to tell him which one it is. ‘Mary, help!’ Clark called to his press secretary in front of reporters, and Mary did indeed come to his rescue, explaining to the General what his position is.
‘You said you would have voted for the [Congressional war resolution] as leverage for a U.N.-based solution,’ Mary reminded him.
‘Exactly,’ said Clark.
At the time of writing, Mary’s position is apparently no longer operational. By the time I stroll over to the percolator and refill my coffee, it may once again be operational. But, even if it is, as a weaselly evasion it’s not even Clark’s – or Mary’s – own weaselly evasion, but one swiped from John Kerry. For weeks now, Senator Kerry has been saying that he only voted for the Congressional resolution authorising war with Iraq in order to persuade Saddam to comply with Hans Blix. It never occurred to the Senator that anyone would mistake his vote in favour of war as a vote in favour of war. Why, that was the very last thing on his mind! For someone who’s supposed to be this season’s John McCain, Clark so far is doing a very good impression of the most tentative, equivocal and hair-splitting of the Democrat hacks he’s supposed to be the straight-talking alternative to.
Still, for a guy who had a lousy week, Clark had a fabulous week. If a Republican didn’t know his own position on what’s supposed to be his main area of expertise, the media would be running the too-dumb-to-be-President analyses. Instead, Clark’s leapt to the head of the pack. If there’s anyone else running, you’d hardly know. The history of the Democratic race to date was neatly summed up by a campaign event I went to just down the road the other week. The Good Ole Boys of Woodsville organised a meet-and-greet with Senator Kerry at the Barge Inn and pulled a pretty good crowd. By the time I got there, the Barge was packed and I had to grab a spot by the wall way over in the back next to the men’s room door. The Senator, with his eternally anguished eyebrows and over-bouffed hair and Massachusetts mien, arrived fashionably late and made an effective entrance. We all applauded and the local TV guys got good pictures of him against the backdrop of flags and bunting as he began to thread his way through the throng. But I couldn’t help noticing that he seemed to be pressing the flesh a little perfunctorily and heading not for the buffet tables from where he was supposed to deliver his speech but instead straight for me. ‘Hi,’ he said, grabbing my hand. ‘John Kerry. Good to see you.’ Then he squeezed past me and went into the toilet.
An aide explained to the crowd that the Senator would shortly be emerging to give his speech. Nonetheless, one could sense the energy level beginning to dissipate. Giving a guy a big hand up to the podium is one thing, giving a guy a big hand to the men’s room is another. Someone suddenly remembered the candidate had been pre-miked and called the girl from the TV crew over to make sure nobody was recording any flushing sounds – as happened, if memory serves, in the first Naked Gun movie. Kerry came out, squeezed past me again, and went into action:
‘How you doin’?’ he began. ‘Good?’
There were a few grudging North Country affirmative grunts.
‘But you could be doing better, right?’
That’s fine, but it’s a generic line, as more or less everything that followed was. Kerry’s entrance that day is the perfect prZcis of his campaign, and those of the other senators. They got into the race, they shook a few hands, and now they’re trying to persuade the media that that giant flushing sound isn’t what it sounds like. But, as far as the press is concerned, final confirmation that their campaigns are going down the toilet came in that spectacular poll bounce of General Clark’s.
One can never predict the future with complete confidence, and these are uncertain times. Bush could well be beaten by a combination of events and the right opponent. Even so, whatever happens, the 44th President will not be Wesley Clark.
Why’s that? First and foremost, Wes is a Friend Of Bill, as in Clinton. Bill gets through FOBs at an enormous rate and even those who don’t wind up dead, in jail or drowning in legal bills rarely prosper. As has been noted in this space many times, the Clintons’ Democratic party is great for the Clintons, disastrous for the Democratic party. From Arkansas, Bill went on to Washington; his successor as governor, Jim Guy Tucker, went on to jail. His party lost control of Congress, but Bill got re-elected. He survived the impeachment trial, but his vice-president lost the White House. He bequeathed a New York senate seat to his wife, but the Clinton flack he installed at the Democratic National Committee led the party to defeat in just about every competitive senate race last November.
Anyone spot the pattern here? If Bill and Hill were to demand a constitutional amendment to lower the age qualification so that Chelsea could run for President, I’d put better odds on that than Clark’s chances of success. In last year’s election, despite the usual media gushing about his ‘rock-star charisma’ enthusing his party, you could pretty much correlate the Democrats’ worst results with Bill’s travel schedule during the campaign. Unless Wes Clark marries Bill in a Vermont civil union and takes his husband’s name, he’s got a one-way ticket on the same oblivion express as Al and Jim Guy. If I were a Democrat, my main priority for the party would be to get the car keys back from Bill Clinton.
really need any other reasons after the Clinton curse, but here are a couple of others anyway: right now the principal casualty of the Clark surge is former Vermont governor Howard Dean. To date, he’s run a brilliant campaign and is the principal beneficiary of his party’s visceral loathing of Bush and all his works. He’s poised to kill off two Democrat bigshots in the first two votes – former House minority leader Dick Gephardt in the Iowa caucus and Senator Kerry in the New Hampshire primary. Is he going to sit back and let some Clinton stooge who’s never run for anything steal the nomination away from him? Not if he’s the same Howard Dean I’ve spent a decade watching from my side of the Connecticut River. When the going gets tough, Dean gets mean.
Third, the Democrats have over-triangulated themselves. Getting an anti-war general sounds swell in theory as a means of inoculating yourself against the old soft-on-national-security charges, but in practice it means a guy whose career high-spots are Kosovo and Rwanda. Now, OK, that’s unfair: in Rwanda, Clinton may have stood idly by as a million unfortunates were slaughtered, but Wes Clark is said by some to have been ‘strongly’ opposed to his superiors’ inertia. But the point is Rwanda and Kosovo, like Somalia and Haiti, are a gazetteer of moral murkiness: even if General Clark was personally opposed to standing idly by during genocide, he was ineffectual, and in that sense he’s a perfect embodiment of American ineffectualness in the pre-9/11 world.
Fourth, Clark has a lot of loopy soundbites floating around suggesting he’s some sort of paranoid narcissist. For a while, he seemed to be claiming that on September 11 ‘people around the White House’ had got ‘a man from a Middle-East think-tank in Canada’ to call to pressure him into linking the attacks to Saddam Hussein. More recently, after being miffed at not being invited to join the post-9/11 national security team, he told the governor of Colorado and others in apparent seriousness that ‘I would have been a Republican if Karl Rove had returned my phone calls.’
Fifth, let’s assume Clark gets himself under control. He’s still the Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington of the presidential campaign. Arianna’s running for governor of California as the people’s champion. But the only people who want her as their champion are a few Hollywood buddies: in the Wall Street Journal recently, I called it ‘trickle-down populism’. That’s Clark, too: it’s all top-down. The Clinton machine’s providing the money and the muscle, but in Iowa and New Hampshire the envelope stuffers and telephone diallers are already spoken for, and I wouldn’t bet on them switching. In my part of New Hampshire, there are no lawn signs for any other candidate but Dean, and those voters aren’t as fickle as the guys in that CNN poll.
In short, war is hell but, even for a battle-scarred veteran, politics can be just as hellish in its own way. The Clintons are using Clark as a place card, just to keep the seat warm for Hill in case, come the spring, Bush looks weak enough to be going down. By then, Clark may be happy to settle for being Senator Rodham’s running mate. But I’m sticking to my bet that he won’t be President in January ’05. If I’m wrong, I’ll quit writing about American politics for the entire Clark term. Or both of them.