Monday, June 16, 2003

Wild speculation
A couple weeks ago I promised that when I got back to my thoughts on the coming election I would comment on possible divisions among the Republicans. This isn’t that piece, but it does have me thinking in that direction. Last night, Gen. Wesley Clark appeared on Meet the Press and set the whole news junkie world atwitter with his admission that he is considering a run for the White House. While his entry would certainly make the whole campaign more interesting, the detail that really sent my imagination flying was his comment that both parties have expressed an interest in him.
MR. RUSSERT: So if you did run for president, you would run as a Democrat?

GEN. CLARK: Well, I haven’t said that. I haven’t made any official moves. But this is a two-party country. There’s no successful third party bids. And, you know, it’s just—that’s the way it is. And I am concerned about many things in the country, not only foreign policy but domestic as well.
MR. RUSSERT: So you would run as a Democrat?

GEN. CLARK: Well, I haven’t come out and said that point blank. I mean, I think that’s another step that would have to be taken.

MR. RUSSERT: But you wouldn’t challenge George Bush in the Republican primaries?

GEN. CLARK: I haven’t considered that, no.

MR. RUSSERT: So it would be in the Democratic primary?

GEN. CLARK: You’re leading the witness here. I mean, that’s a step that I’ll have to work through along with everything else. You know, I’ve been non-partisan. I’ve got—I’m a centrist on most of these issues, and I’ve got people after me from both sides of the aisle. That are—a lot of Republicans have talked to me and they’ve said, “Look, we’re very concerned about where the country is. We’re moving into—not only have we done a war that’s essentially an elective war that’s put us in trouble afterwards, in an indefinite commitment”—and by the way I don’t hear—they don’t hear the strong voices out there about mission creep and exit strategy that dominated the 1990s dialogue. But a lot of Republicans have come to me and said, you know, “What does this mean?” And they’ve said, “On the other hand, we always believed that we should be the party of fiscal responsibility. And where are we going with the tax cuts? What does this mean for the future of the country?” So I’m getting, you know, interest from both sides, really and just haven’t moved past that.

Let me go on record as saying, I don’t think Clark or anyone else will be making a meaningful challenge to Bush in the Republican primaries. That’s too bad. I think a primary challenge from Clark would be good for the Democrats and good for the country.

Obviously, my main reason for saying I think it would be good for the country is that I think the Bush administration has been an unmitigated disaster and anything helps boot them out is a good thing. With that admission out of the way, let me go on to say that I think a serious primary challenge to Bush would improve the tenor of political discourse in this country. Over the last decade a popular perception has emerged that partisan sniping is at intolerable levels and that it is preventing us from properly addressing serious pressing issues. There is a lot of truth in this (though historically speaking, we’ve survived worse). A bad side effect of this belief is that people are inclined to dismiss any criticism from across the aisle as just politics and therefore not sincere.

The Bush administration has many problems that need to be dealt with. Their erosion of civil liberties in the name of national security has degraded the bill of rights. Their faith in endless tax-cuts in place of meaningful economic policies are saddling us with unprecedented deficits. Their preference for telegenic gestures over real work has made the country less secure not more so. All of these actions betray ore constituencies of the Republican Party. Debate spurred by an internal challenge is likely to be more substantive than debate from without. It is also likely to make those who would blindly follow him, as the only Republican game in town, stop and consider whether he really is the best representative of their wishes.

The advantages to the Democrats of a serious primary challenge to Bush are more obvious. It would be good to get Bush to spend some of his astronomical war chest before the general campaign. It would be good to bruise him up a little before the fall. It would be good not to have a fellow Democrat accusing all of the candidates of being weak on defense.

As I said, I don’t think this is at all likely, but it does give a warm feeling to think about it.

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