Clark plays the patriot card

Rich Lowry
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Posted: Jan 12, 2004 12:00 AM

CONCORD, N.H. -- Democrats in New Hampshire nervous that front-runner Howard Dean is too gaffe-prone and harshly anti-Bush are beginning to turn to ... Gen. Wesley Clark?

Anyone who listens to what Clark says on the stump every day can only consider his surge -- fueled partly by doubts about the seemingly out-of-control Dean -- with incredulity. Clark isn't much of a substantive or tonal alternative to the former Vermont governor. He's just Dean with medals. If anything, Clark is more outrageous than the front-runner, routinely questioning President Bush's patriotism.

At two recent town-hall meetings in Concord, Clark regaled his admiring audiences with riffs like this: "I don't think it's patriotic to put on a flight suit and prance around on the deck of an aircraft carrier looking for a photo op. We have a president of the United States who did not do his duty to take care of America. If you're patriotic, you do your duty."

In Clark's telling, the Iraq War wasn't just misconceived, it was -- in Clark's favorite charge -- unpatriotic. According to Clark, unnamed sources in the Pentagon told him after 9/11 that the administration was hellbent on toppling Saddam Hussein, which he characterizes as "Kind of crazy. Not patriotic. Not smart." He continues: "I don't think it was a patriotic war. I think it was a mistake, a strategic mistake, and I think that the president of the United States wasn't patriotic in going after Saddam Hussein. He simply misled America and cost us casualties and killed and injured America's reputation around the world without valid reason for doing so. It's not patriotic; it's wrong."

Clark maintains -- taking the typical paranoid liberal view of the Iraq War a step further -- that the Bush administration considered getting tough on Saudi Arabia, but took a pass because it wouldn't help it in the elections quite like toppling Saddam would. "I'm sure the Bush administration must have discussed it," he says. "I'm sure they said, 'Gee, this is too difficult, won't help us by the next election, let's go get Saddam Hussein.'" Clark thinks that Bush was never truly interested in getting Osama bin Laden: "Instead of getting Osama bin Laden, the president already had in mind we were going to go after Saddam Hussein. It was a world-class bait-and-switch."

Clark piles on other charges. He accuses the Republican Party of a lack of true Christianity, saying that "there's only one party that lives that faith in America, and that's our party, the Democratic Party." He routinely attacks Bush's heart. He says the president has "the record of a reckless and heartless leader," and his stem-cell policy is "heartless, and it's wrong."

If Democrats are tired of Dean, who often has to clean up after sloppy remarks, Clark won't offer much relief. He famously flip-flopped the first day of his campaign on whether he would have voted for the Iraq War resolution or not. During his recent swing through New Hampshire, he had to back off a statement that he would support abortions up to the moment of birth. If he continues to surge, he will have to explain false charges like this one: "I do have an advantage over George W. Bush, and not just the fact that I owned a passport before I became president of the United States." (Bush routinely traveled out of the country -- presumably with a passport -- as far back as his days as an aspiring Texas oilman.)

For all this, Clark is an impressive person. A quick study, he has rapidly picked up on politics, including telling people -- i.e., angry, anti-Bush Democratic voters -- what they want to hear. A few months ago Clark complained, "How dare this administration make the charge that if you disagree with its policies, you are somehow unpatriotic!'' Never mind that no one in the administration has ever said any such thing. Maybe Clark was so mad because he was worried the administration was stealing his best material.