Clark's chances, in general

Posted: Nov 20, 2003 12:00 AM

Gen. Wesley Clark's shooting-star campaign for president is burning out as it crosses the sky. So many flip-flops and so few clear messages. Is he for the Iraq War? Is he an old-school Reagan Republican? Or maybe he's a G.W. Bush Republican (as he indicated in a speech a couple years back)? Or is he now a real Democrat? Does he actually think Bush is set to take over numerous countries in the Middle East and elsewhere? Would he hand U.S. foreign policy over to the United Nations?

All this haziness, and now some of his senior campaign staff is resigning.

But Clark is not the only general to stumble in his quest for the presidency. Many generals have sought the highest office in the land, although few have attained it.

Since Gen. George Washington (running unopposed) won the first American presidential election, 20 more generals have tried for the position of commander in chief. In fact, a general ran in every presidential election between 1788 and 1808, 1824 and 1852, and 1860 and 1892.

Some were obscure men from obscure parties: James B. Weaver, of the Greenback Party, ran in 1880 and 1892 and lost both times. Some were famous in military circles: Winfield Scott, who ran in 1852 against Franklin Pierce, was affectionately known to his troops and subordinates as "Old Fuss." Some brought little to the office: James Garfield's assassination was the most remarkable event of his presidency (although he stuck to his vow of being a one-term president). And some -- George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant -- were as famous as any non-military figure in American political history.

All told, 22 generals have run a total of 30 times for president. Ten have actually held the office. Between 1796 and 1880, there were only four presidential elections in which a general did not make a try for the office (1812, 1816, 1820 and 1854). Yet from 1880 to the present, there have been only four elections that featured a general as a nominated candidate. Of these four candidacies, only Ike was successful.

This must have something to do with the fact that the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War produced a vast number of generals, and an even vaster amount of political capital. In the 20th century, it took until World War II for a general -- Dwight D. Eisenhower -- to generate similar momentum.

But is that all there is to it? Douglas MacArthur was at least as great a general as Eisenhower, and he never made it off the ground as a presidential candidate. (The farthest he got was a Wisconsin primary in which he was thrashed by his opponent.) And Eisenhower padded his military glory during peacetime. He was often celebrated as the victorious general and supreme allied commander. He was also president of Columbia University, further enhancing his status in the eyes of the voters.

Today, in view of the massive security threat to America following the attacks of 9-11 and the subsequent war on terror launched by President Bush, it is quite possible that the political clout of our key generals is again surging. Certainly, America's respect for the integrity, character and moral compass of our military personnel has risen a hundredfold in the last two years.

While Gen. Wesley Clark did not serve in the Afghan or Iraq theaters, his presidential intentions nonetheless catapulted him onto the front pages. Unfortunately, despite his vacillation on key issues, he has proven to be a me-too liberal Democrat. He easily qualifies as one of the nine Mondales who would raise taxes if elected, and his positions on expanded federal spending and government-run healthcare keep him very much in the Mondale orbit.

More, he is pessimistic about the U.S. economy and the country's prospects in the war against terror. This keeps him at loggerheads with an American public that greatly prefers optimistic vision and leadership in its presidents. Even on military and foreign policy, supposedly the general's strong card, Clark is a carping cynic -- one that lacks any coherent strategy to protect America against terrorism.

On the great issues of war, peace and prosperity, Clark is hewing to the McGovern-Mondale model that has been criticized so effectively by Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia. It remains to be seen whether any of the Democratic Nine can move closer to a centrist Truman-JFK model: standing tough against our enemies (Truman and Kennedy) and cutting taxes to spur economic growth (JFK, the first postwar supply-sider). This was successfully imitated -- however loosely -- by President Bill Clinton in his two winning campaigns.

If the Democrats are serious about retaking the White House, they should borrow from the best of their political legacy -- not the worst.