Democrats May Be Looking for a Hero, But Clark Is No Ike

Posted June 25, 2003 at 4:22pm

Gen. Wesley Clark continues to be mentioned as a possible late entry into the 2004 Democratic sweepstakes. But if history is any guide, he will come up well short of another former NATO commander’s performance in seeking the White House. [IMGCAP(1)]

In some ways, Clark’s “uncampaign” resembles Dwight David Eisenhower’s successful run for the 1952 Republican nomination. Like Ike, Clark seems to want to be drafted into the race.

Clark’s ideal scenario is as follows: When the Democratic race fails to produce a clear frontrunner this summer, party leaders and grassroots activists start looking for a fresh face who can neutralize President Bush’s advantage on defense and foreign policy issues. That’s when they turn to Clark, who has no domestic record to defend and can take on Bush on Afghanistan and Iraq.

It’s an entertaining scenario, even if it is silly and far-fetched. While Clark is a former Rhodes scholar and, like Ike, a former NATO supreme commander, he simply isn’t Eisenhower. Not even close.

While Clark was the commander of NATO’s military action in Kosovo, Ike had been the Allied commander for the massive and history-changing invasions of North Africa and France, as well as Army chief of staff and president of Columbia University. Everyone knew Eisenhower. He led military efforts to free the world. Nobody knows Clark.

Sure, if you watch CNN you know Clark as a former general who has become a military analyst. But he lacks the notoriety and public standing Eisenhower had in the early 1950s, and the situation now isn’t close to where the presidency and the country were in 1951-52.

An overwhelming 81 percent of likely Democratic primary voters tested nationally in a March 2003 Zogby poll said they were not familiar enough with Clark to have either a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him.

By contrast, in September 1951, 74 percent of those polled had a favorable opinion of Ike, 11 percent had a favorable opinion of him but believed that he wasn’t presidential material, and 2 percent had an unfavorable opinion of him.

More telling, in May 1951 polling conducted by Gallup, Eisenhower was by far the first choice of adults for both the 1952 Republican and Democratic nominations.

Gallup Poll general election matchups conducted in the summer of 1951 also showed Ike winning the White House regardless of whether he was running as a Republican or a Democrat.

As the GOP nominee, he clobbered incumbent President Harry Truman (D) 59 percent to 26 percent. And as the Democratic nominee, he clobbered Sen. Robert Taft (R) 61 percent to 24 percent. In contrast, Clark trailed Bush 56 percent to 24 percent in a hypothetical general election matchup in a January 2003 Zogby survey.

Shortly before the 1950 midterm elections, New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, the 1948 Republican presidential nominee, endorsed Eisenhower for his party’s 1952 presidential nomination. And by the summer of 1951, a pro-Eisenhower organization, which included a number of wealthy, prominent Republicans, such as John Hay Whitney, was formed to promote Ike’s potential candidacy.

The sitting governor of New Hampshire, Sherman Adams (R), endorsed Ike in late- September 1951. And two high-profile Republican Senators, Henry Cabot Lodge (Mass.) and James Duff (Pa.), quickly jumped aboard the Eisenhower bandwagon. All of this happened even before the general had indicated that he was a Republican, let alone willing to accept the GOP nomination.

In contrast, Clark’s current supporters are limited to the laughable DraftWesleyClark.com. He has no big-name support and lacks any establishment backing. He’s a star only to a handful of cable TV viewers. His candidacy is an idea and a scenario, nothing more.

In 1951, the Republicans were split into two camps, conservatives, who generally were backing Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, and moderates, who didn’t have a candidate that they believed could stop Taft. (Few thought California Gov. Earl Warren could derail the Ohio Senator.) Eisenhower filled the moderate’s void.

This cycle, there is no ideological vacuum within the Democratic Party, nor is there an obvious constituency that can’t find an acceptable candidate in the current field. While some Democrats might be willing to consider Clark as a candidate, no one inside the party is yearning for a Clark candidacy. And no major elected official is likely to endorse Clark before he becomes a candidate.

In the early 1950s, of course, the delegate selection process was very different than it is now. There were 13 GOP primaries back then, and New Hampshire was having its first-ever presidential preference primary (previous primaries only chose delegates to the national convention).

This cycle, the Democratic race has been under way for months. Iowa activists have signed onto campaigns, and the New Hampshire primary requires more organization and political sophistication than it did 50 years ago. Money, of course, is much more of a consideration in 2003 than it was in 1951.

Just as important, the nation’s circumstances are quite different now than they were 52 years ago.

In 1952, the Democrats had controlled the White House for 20 straight years. An unpopular war with no end in sight had made President Truman and his party damaged goods, and the country was looking for someone to solve the mess in Korea. Republican frustration at not being able to win the White House for two decades was boiling over.

A GOP presidential nominee with a military background was a perfect fit for both the party and the country in 1952. Whatever Bush’s failings in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no comparable public outcry for an Eisenhower to rescue the country. Most Democrats think that Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean or one of the other current Democratic candidates could do just fine.

The bottom line? Wesley Clark might make an interesting vice presidential pick for the eventual Democratic nominee, but there is simply no reason to take him seriously as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. No reason at all. [IMGCAP(2)]