WASHINGTON – He’s got the military credentials and the heightened profile of a pontificating pundit on the war in Iraq, but most political experts think Gen. Wesley Clark (search) might be aiming too high if he’s considering a run for president in 2004.
“I don’t think he has a prayer of anyone taking him seriously as a candidate for president, but I do think there is a prayer for someone taking him seriously as a candidate for vice president,” said Rich Galen, a Washington, D.C.-based Republican strategist and editor of Mullings.com.
But, added Galen, “The only thing he would bring to the ticket is if the nominee himself had a weakness in the national security department.”
The former NATO Supreme Allied Commander of Europe (search), who oversaw the 78-day bombing campaign of Kosovo in 1999 under the Clinton administration, has not publicly confirmed any interest in running for commander-in-chief. However, he has reportedly met with top Democratic insiders and traveled back and forth between the key primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa over the last two years.
The closest he has gotten to confirming his presidential aspirations was on NBC’s Meet the Press in February, when he said, “I’ve thought about it.”
He declined to comment for this story.
The 58-year-old Rhodes scholar and decorated Vietnam War veteran has been spending his time giving speeches across the country and serving as a talking head or “armchair general” on CNN during Operation Iraqi Freedom. That latter role has political strategists saying his public profile is on an upswing -- though not all agree that his commentaries will serve him well in the long run.
“He was wrong on everything,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster for the New York-based McLaughlin & Associates. “I think his candidacy was over before it even started. He is a pundit on television who was mostly wrong about everything he talked about.”
Others say Clark was easy to watch. Unlike the more strident voices against the war, Clark offered measured analysis about battle strategy throughout the war. While at the beginning, he questioned whether the Pentagon had adequately planned for troops on the ground or whether the ultimate victory would come quickly, in the end he was close with his prediction that the campaign would last two to three weeks.
Many analysts add that Clark's balanced approach was marked by his refusal to be a cheerleader for the Bush administration’s battle plans, but also his rejection of overly harsh criticism.
In fact, Washington, D.C.-based Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said Clark's appearance helped potential voters identify him, especially Democrats who will be voting in the primary and independents.
“I think he is straight talking and appeals to that independent voter out there,” Lake said. “The public is in a funny mood right now -- on one hand they want political experience, but on the other they are sick of politics. I think he is a terrific presidential candidate.”
But Clark has hardly been withholding criticism of the Bush administration, saving his more cutting remarks for his off-air commentaries.
On April 8, he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that President Bush’s foreign policy did not grow out of the Sept. 11 attacks, but was an ideological mission pursued by his hard-right advisors who “took advantage of those events to gain ascendancy.”
During the discussion on NATO expansion, Clark suggested that the administration had alienated allies rather than exhausting diplomatic entreaties before going into Iraq without the United Nations, an argument favored by Democrats.
“I believe we are safer when we are liked than when we’re hated, when we are respected, not when we are feared,” he said.
Those types of remarks haven't done Clark any harm, said one Republican close to him.
“This is a former supreme commander of NATO, this is someone who has been in battle -- if he looks at a battle plan and has a few constructive criticisms, who can fault him for that?” asked Michael Cook, executive director of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, where Clark and his wife reside.
Cook said Clark declined an offer to run for governor in the state in 2001. Clark is not a member of the Democratic Party, nor has he been involved in their activities, but he made a pretty good impression on the folks there, said Cook.
“People here who have known him for years have long been impressed with Gen. Clark,” he said, noting the “depth of his knowledge of domestic issues” and his “very persuasive” manner.
Not a lot of public record is available about where the retired four-star general stands on domestic issues, and he has never held public office. But Democrats insist his military experience would fill a Democratic void of national security gravitas on any 2004 ticket.
That said, political analyst Michael Barone warned that Democrats need more than just a general on their ticket to prove to voters they are tough on national defense issues.
“They are seen as a party who you cannot rely on to defend us from enemies abroad,” said Barone, noting that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is trying to use his status as a Vietnam vet to imply military credibility.
“I don’t think Kerry and Clark, by virtue of the fact they’ve had military backgrounds, will be given credit for changing that,” he said.
But everything depends on whether Clark puts himself out there. And if he does, he has support, said Cook.
“I think whatever he ran for -- president or otherwise -- he would make a great candidate.”