Wesley Clark and the Unbearable Banality of Campaign '08
It began the way these things usually begin -- a statement or observation, inartfully made or, more likely, deliberately misinterpreted and twisted by one side or another. The innocuous words or phrase are fashioned into a weapon that for 48 or 72 hours on the internet becomes a spittle flecked, all out war of charge and countercharge until both sides exhaust themselves and go looking for another fake controversy.
One helluva way to elect a president.
This latest dust-up is perhaps even more inane than usual. In the Red Corner, John McCain -- Republican Presidential Nominee, war hero, former prisoner of war, and a man that most non-partisan experts would grant a wealth of experience in defense and international affairs.
In the Blue Corner, Wesley Clark -- former NATO Commander, war hero, former candidate for President, and currently auditioning for a role in the Barack Obama production of Campaign '08: The Musical. Clark would love to latch on officially to the Obama campaign and move up to the head of the line for a plum posting in any Obama Administration. Hence, CBS newsman Bob Schieffer welcomed Clark to the network's Sunday morning gabfest Face the Nation.
Clark understood his role perfectly. As a former general, his credentials (so he thought) were unassailable. Clark was to venture into territory that few if any other Obama surrogate - and certainly not the practitioner of the "new politics" himself - could ever go; the careful but deliberate trashing of McCain's national security credentials.
The rationale of the Obama campaign is simple. If the race turns on the economy and gas prices, he wins. If it turns on national security and terrorism, he might lose. With McCain's huge perceived advantage in national security, cutting the Arizona senator down to size in that regard becomes paramount.
And who better to get the ball rolling in that direction than Wesley Clark, respected former SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander -- Europe) and the man in charge of the Kosovo bombing campaign. Clark began his deconstruction of McCain by praising him for his service and complimenting him on a lifetime of work in the national security arena.
But then the caveats started to pour forth:
In the interview, Clark said McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, was "untested and untried."
When Schieffer asked to explain the comment, Clark said he was referring to McCain's experience, or lack thereof, in setting national security policies and understanding the risk involved in such matters.
"I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war. And he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn't held executive responsibility," said Clark, a former NATO commander who campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.
"He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn't seen what it's like when diplomats come in and say, I don't know whether we're going to be able to get this point through or not," Clark said.
So far so good. Clark has carefully carved out a line of attack that acknowledges McCain's heroism while blasting the idea that just because he was in the military, he is more qualified than Obama to be Commander in Chief. Whether the attack would resonate is another matter. But at least Clark hadn't crossed the invisible line and tried to smear McCain by denigrating his service.
Until Schieffer asked the painfully obvious follow-up question:
Schieffer noted that Obama did not have any of those experiences, nor had he "ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down."
"Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president," Clark said.
This is mostly true - if one were to simply take Clark's words at face value and apply them to a reasonable standard of logic. Tragically for Clark, logic is the last thing anyone in this campaign is interested in practicing.
Clark's valid point about military service not necessarily denoting experience that would be valuable for a president was lost in his incredibly clumsy attempt to downplay the one thing about McCain that can never be attacked; his 5 years of torture in a North Vietnamese prison camp. "The POW Card" is as valuable to McCain as the "Race Card" is to Obama. And the McCain campaign played this one to the hilt.
They hit back at the Obama camp -- hard:
"If Barack Obama wants to question John McCain's service to his country, he should have the guts to do it himself and not hide behind his campaign surrogates," Smith said.
"If he expects the American people to believe his pledges about a new kind of politics, Barack Obama has a responsibility to condemn these attacks."
The real problem for the Obama campaign was that Clark wasn't supposed to make headlines with his appearance on Face the Nation. Obama scheduled a "big speech" in Independence, Missouri for Monday on an issue that the campaign is desperately trying to put behind them; the perceived lack of patriotism of Obama. But instead of the candidate's stirring words about love of country and honoring the sacrifices of past heroes being the story, Obama was forced onto defense and the headlines were about him throwing another erstwhile supporter under the campaign bus:
For those who have fought under the flag of this nation – for the young veterans I meet when I visit Walter Reed; for those like John McCain who have endured physical torment in service to our country – no further proof of such sacrifice is necessary. And let me also add that no one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides. We must always express our profound gratitude for the service of our men and women in uniform. Period. Full stop.
Clark, seeking some sort of vindication, defended his attack ("inartful," quoth Obama -- which seems to be a buzzword of his campaign of late) by ignoring the slam against McCain's courage and concentrating on his valid points made about McCain's lack of "executive" experience. But by this point, Clark had already been kicked off the Greyhound and was trying to hold on to the undercarriage; another casualty of the Obama campaign.
That's OK, Wes. I'm sure the Obama Administration will have a posting for you somewhere. How about Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan?
But how far off base was Wes Clark in his comments? He continuously praised McCain's service, acknowledged his sacrifice as a POW and related how much a hero he was to an entire generation of Americans who served in the military. Other surrogates for Obama have since gone before the cameras to make exactly the same argument as Clark regarding McCain's lack of leadership experience in the military. (McCain commanded a squadron in the Navy.)
However, the McCain camp insists that by attacking his demonstrated lack of command experience, the Obama campaign is attacking his service. Aside from Clark's snide comments about McCain being shot down as no big deal and irrelevant to his qualifications to be president, the attack on McCain's national security credentials has been fairly tame -- at least from authorized Obama surrogates. Lefty blogs took the attack several steps farther and miles lower by savaging McCain for using his experience as a POW in his campaign. This paragon of liberal virtue (a writer who made his bones by outing gay Republican staffers against their will) accused McCain of disloyalty for making a propaganda film for his captors rather than being tortured to death:
A lot of people don't know, however, that McCain made a propaganda tape for the enemy while he was in captivity. Putting that bit of disloyalty aside, what exactly is McCain's military experience that prepares him for being commander in chief? It's not like McCain rose to the level of general or something. He's a vet. We get it. But simply being a vet, as laudable as it is, doesn't really tell you much about someone's qualifications for being commander in chief. If McCain is going to play the "I was tortured" card every five minutes as a justification for electing him president, then he shouldn't throw a hissy fit any time any one asks to know more about his military experience. Getting shot down, tortured, and then doing propaganda for the enemy is not command experience.
You stay classy, netroots.
This is where such banality leads -- mindless, vitriolic attacks on both sides that have nothing to do with the campaign but everything to do with generating heat and grabbing headlines. Campaigns engage in this idiocy because the time between the end of the primaries and the build up to the conventions is a great big empty maw of nothingness for the media. They have to fill it with something. And in addition to standard speeches on issues and plans for the future (which, let's face it, are boring and bring in few readers and attracts few eyeballs for the news nets), the tussles over what one candidate or the other or one surrogate or the other said is the only excitement around.
Granted, for many bloggers, this red meat kind of attack can be fun and profitable. We all do it to varying degrees. It gives everybody something to write about while showcasing those whose talent lies in name calling and 100 proof snark. This leads to links, and more readers, and the approbation of your peers.
But contributing to a sensible dialog for the campaign? Not so much.
The internet has only made the problem worse. And in the future, as more and more people receive their primary news of the day from the net, you can be sure that these dust ups are only going to get more intense and, if possible, even sillier than they are now.
John McCain's military experience is a legitimate subject for discussion as far as how that experience helps or doesn't help him if he were to become president. But the attempt by both sides to score political points off of statements by one surrogate or another who "inartfully" make a point serves no purpose other than to churn up a lot of sound and fury that signifies nothing.