Decoding the Obama-Clark Dis
Monday, August 18, 2008 at 10:00 am
Barring a sudden change of plans in these final days before Denver, the Democrats are poised to write their most famous general — Wesley Clark — out of their most important gathering. Next week, they’ll devote an entire night of convention programming to demonstrating the party’s commitment to veterans and a strong defense — without a word from the only Democratic politician voters can name who actually commanded battalions in the field. It’d be like doing a global warming night without Al Gore — except imagine that presidential elections were decided on environmental issues.
Or forget four stars. Even by pure political calculus, Clark would still be a key convention speaker because he is one of the most popular and requests figures in the party. So what gives?
The major theories are that either the Obama campaign distrusts Clark because he is a longtime Clinton loyalist who endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary, or that Obama aides soured on Clark after he made the factual observation that Sen. John McCain’s service is not a qualification to be president, and refused to back down.
Dissing Clark based on either argument would be a vindictive mistake. First, the convention is about unity — as the Obama campaign has repeatedly said — and a leader who aims to unite the nation had better be able to bring together the wings of his own party. Second, wherever one falls on the McCain criticism — I argued Clark was right on the facts and politically smart to put McCain on defense — it was a skirmish over tactics. So even if Obama’s aides felt Clark was mistaken and off-message, it was a reasonable dispute over how to tackle a shared goal. If that is grounds for convention muzzling, half the Democratic caucus couldn’t net speaking roles.
One recurring critique of activism directed toward a nominee, from lobbying the platform to criticizing a given decision, is that the activism automatically detracts from the campaign’s efficacy, or drains resources that should be focused on defeating the opponent. That complaint is not only simplistic, since it presumes that all political activity is binary (it only helps or hurts). It is also elitist, because it assumes that the people running a campaign have already perfectly divined its best interests and cannot benefit from public input. If Sen. Barack Obama is actually about to follow through on a plan to shut one of party’s most popular military figures out of his nominating convention, he would clearly be making a political mistake — likely rooted in some petty intramural history. Maybe this week, his supporters can show him a better way.
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