Wesley Clark’s campaign has rocketed out to the stratosphere, despite problems that should be crippling like a virtual lack of organization. I guess a lot of uncommitted Democrats were just hoping and waiting for him to say “yes”. Look at him go! He announces and the following week he is leading the pack, at least according to Gallup which did a poll for CNN and USA Today. This poll shows Clark leading the Democratic candidates for president by a large margin: 22% vs. 13% for Dean, his closest competitor. The same poll says that if the election were held today between Bush and Clark that Clark would win 48 percent to 46%. (Bush’s approval rating is down to a record low of 50%, according to this poll.)
It must be about image because it can’t be about substance. So far Wes has been pretty silent on substance beyond vague generalities. He’s actually stumbled a few times, suggesting in Tampa that if he had been in Congress he might have voted for the war with Iraq, then back tracking. I doubt those who were polled heard these little gaffes.
Dean, who was used to being in the limelight, is now back in the pack and playing the challenger role again. Meanwhile on his website he is challenging his supporters to contribute $5M over the next 10 days. It’s an audacious goal. Will he make it? If he doesn’t some will say he is losing momentum, perhaps at the expense of Clark. I did my part and gave Howard another $50.
I’m still trying to understand the Wesley Clark phenomenon. I understand the Dean phenomenon pretty well. Dean articulated a clear antiwar message and put together a savvy internet marketing team. He tapped the energy of those who wanted to change this country and empowered them by putting them together in MeetUps. He has to spend little of his time or attention on fundraising. This helps him concentrate on campaigning. The other candidates, except Clark, are still trying to figure out what hit them. They were operating under the old rules.
I think there is something in the American character that likes guys riding high in the saddle. Bush gave this illusion and perhaps that’s why he won a narrow victory in 2000. Democrats want to look up and admire someone too. Clark gives them the image of someone who is supremely capable and competent. It can be intoxicating. And we Democrats want to win so badly in 2004. Clark looks like the obvious choice, at least at the moment.
But Democrats also need to look rather seriously at this guy. He is a Johnny come lately Democrat. He candidly admits he voted for Reagan and Bush, both times. I certainly like his position on the war and the United Nations, but given that he has mostly worn conservative credentials it makes me wonder how sincere a Democrat and liberal he really is.
Those looking for vast right wing conspiracies might also consider vast Clinton conspiracies. Bill Clinton has let it slip that Wesley Clark is his man. Maybe it’s because he’s from Arkansas. Or maybe since Bill represents the moderate, centrist Democrat he thinks he has outfoxed Howard Dean by picking Wes. Clinton probably perceives Dean as unelectable and too liberal, and found a way to bring his perfect man into the running to ride the growing tide of disenchantment against Bush.
It remains to be seen if the Clark candidacy has wings. He may be smart, but he’s never run for office before and there is a steep learning curve. He is bound to say the wrong things from time to time, and come across as ill prepared. It may not matter if voters, as they seem to be, are more concerned with personality than they are with issues.
But it is way too early to rule out Howard Dean. This is the Democrat with the money and with the organizational skills that the others seem to lack. He can still collect money hand over fist via the Internet simply whenever his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, wants to. He just puts another Louisville Slugger bat on the web site and the money pours in. That money buys a lot of media attention. Moreover Dean, unlike any other candidate, has grass roots. He has people turbo charged, not so much because they think he is the ideal candidate, but because he has them believing they are empowered.
I am impressed far more with Dean’s supporters than I am with Dean himself. Most of the reason I give him money is because he can feed the energy of these people. This is one determined bunch of people, and they are talking to everyone they know. Don’t think they plan to stop with Howard Dean’s election. They want more. Much more. They want to take back the congress and the country. They want to reverse the last four years. They want to drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism. He has lots of supporters but most of them are 20 or 30 somethings. In other words he has energized the disenfranchised younger voters, got them to care, and got them to organize. And they will vote in much larger numbers in 2004.
This may well turn into a tsunami a year from now. If Clark is the better candidate so be it. But don’t dismiss the Dean phenomenon. It is much more real and it has legs. I’ve caught the wave too. I’ll be going to my first official meet up for Dean on October 1st at the Chantilly, Virginia regional library. I hope to see some of you there. I want to be part of this energy. I want to take back my country.