Clark Draws Raves

Posted June 20, 2003 at 6:11pm

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark glided past the horde of tourists in the Capitol hallways Thursday, shuttling between appointments with Democratic lawmakers — until he happened upon former Rep. Ronnie Shows (D-Miss.).

“Nice to meet you,” Clark said, shaking the Mississippi Democrat’s hand. “What can I do for you?”

“I want to help you get elected,” a beaming Shows bellowed. “That is what the hell I want to do.”

Moments later, as Clark hustled off to a meeting in the Cannon House Office Building, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) spotted the general, stopped to say hello and “urge” him to run for president.

“I have signed up with [Sen.] John Kerry [D-Mass.],” Ford said. “I think he needs to take a lesson from [you].”

Specifically, Ford told Clark he was impressed with the general’s recent performance on “Meet the Press” and said his candidacy would give a lot of people “pause” about the 2004 elections.

In an interview a few hours after his encounter with Clark, Ford stressed his allegiance in the presidential nominating contest remains with Kerry. But Ford said he believes the general’s candidacy would help boost the Democratic Party’s credibility with voters on foreign affairs and military issues.

“He would be a great ticket mate for John Kerry,” Ford said. “Even running for president, his voice out on the trail right now sends an unmistakable signal to the country that there are people in my party who understand national security and foreign policy. One of the reasons I am supporting John Kerry is that he also brings many of those same credentials.”

The only problem is that Clark hasn’t formally announced his candidacy, even though a grassroots campaign, DraftWesleyClark.com, has sprung up to try to convince the general to run. In addition to its Internet presence, the group has also purchased radio ad time in New Hampshire, the first official primary state, calling on him to enter the race.

Even if he does decide to run, the general has not definitively said he would seek the Democratic nomination. That fact has angered some senior Democrats, who want Clark to state unequivocally his party affiliation as he openly explores a challenge to President Bush next year.

“This guy can’t make up his mind about what party he is in,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is hosting candidate forums in the first caucus state. “He can’t even answer a question on television on Sunday [“Meet the Press”] about what party he belongs to.

“It sounds like he is too ashamed to be a Democrat,” Harkin added.

But Clark won’t budge. He sidesteps questions about his political affiliation by saying he prefers to talk about the issues. And in an interview between meetings Thursday, the general said he doesn’t have a specific time frame in mind as to when he will make up his mind whether to run for president.

“I need a couple of months,” he said. “I am going to have to think about it seriously.”

Still, all signs point to Clark running as a Democrat, even if he refuses to declare it. He has voted as a Democrat in the past and donated $1000 to former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles’ (D) unsuccessful bid for North Carolina’s open Senate seat in 2002.

Clark also spent the better part of Thursday meeting privately with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and a gaggle of mostly conservative Democratic House Members, including Reps. Gene Taylor (Miss.), Baron Hill (Ind.), Steve Israel (N.Y.), Jim Matheson (Utah), Dennis Moore (Kan.) and Mike Ross (Ark.).

Earlier in the day, the general met with officials from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — one of the nation’s most powerful labor unions — where he talked to them about domestic and foreign policy issues.

Reid would not discuss the particulars of his private conversation with Clark, but said he didn’t offer advice on whether he should run or not.

“He expressed his views to me, and whether he runs or not, that is a decision he has to make,” the Minority Whip said.

Jack Pratt, a spokesman for Rep. Israel, said the Congressmen and several other House Democrats wanted to talk to Clark about his “strong views on Iraq and foreign policy.” He added, “Obviously they had a discussion about politics.”

Several Democrats echoed Ford’s belief that Clark — a retired four-star general, former NATO supreme allied commander and, like Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran — could help the Democratic Party neutralize Bush on the issues of foreign policy and the war on terrorism.

“In addition to Senator Kerry, he brings the war experience, and I think this administration prides itself on the use of the military,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “I think having John Kerry and Wesley Clark, they know what war is [and] they are going to give us a real interesting contrast [to] this president who likes to go to war but never went to war.

“I think Wesley Clark would make a great addition to the field and I encourage him to do it,” added Boxer, who has not yet endorsed a candidate in the Democratic primaries.

A Clark candidacy might also attract Independent voters, a bloc that party leaders understand is the difference between victory and defeat in 2004.

“I think he has a very impressive resume,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). “He is a bright, articulate leader and I think he brings with him a new base that could be very helpful to our party.”

The “new base” Daschle and other Democrats often refer to is made up of voters who support Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq, but not necessarily the president’s handling of the domestic agenda.

AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said it “remains to be seen” if Clark has the “electability” trait that he frequently references as critical if Democrats are to win in 2004. But he acknowledged that Clark’s profile as a well-respected general would be seen as a positive feature against Bush.

“I think one thing he has, which I think would be an asset in a national campaign, is this stature he has from the military and indeed his ideas in depth on the country, the military, terrorism and all those kinds of things,” McEntee said.

Clark is careful not to define himself as purely a foreign policy expert in interviews with the media, and works to weave his domestic goals into talk about his vision for America.

The general is equally cautious not to compare himself to the other nine Democrats seeking the nomination, responding instead with a set of questions about the future of the country when asked to size himself up against the current field.

“I haven’t really looked at those issues,” Clark said. “What I am really looking at is, do the ideas get traction. Do we really understand what we want for America to be as a nation? What’s it about? What is the war about? What is our strategy for dealing with that? How are we going to deal with the creation of jobs to replace the jobs that are lost, et cetera?”

From Clark’s perspective, the country is under-performing.

“America has enormous promise that it is not living up to it right now,” he said. “We can do so much more with our country, with our people, than what we are doing right now.”

Still, Clark is guarded when asked if the vocal support by some Democrats on Capitol Hill makes him more likely to seek the nomination.

“It makes me feel more proud of my service,” he said. “Really.”

But for many people, the uncertainty about the very basic fact of his political life remains.

“Is he a Democrat?” asked Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).