As pundits pounce on Wesley Clark, his presidential campaign is beginning to look like a bubble on the verge of bursting. It remains to be seen whether Clark can connect with anyone who isn't a political junkie. But one big surprise is how open progressives are to his candidacy. Not that they're keen on falling for a four-star general, even one who calls himself a liberal. But interviews with black activists, feminists, anti-war activists, and left-wing intellectuals yielded a loose consensus that if it takes a warrior to beat George Bush, bring him on.
Mind you, not every peacenik is ready to roll with a military man. "For me, being a general is a disqualification," says Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, which organized the recent round of anti-war marches. Rita Haley, president of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, considers Clark's military background "a potential liability." But even Cagan concedes, "We have to do whatever we can to get rid of Bush." And Haley says, "I would vote for Zilla the Gorilla" in order to accomplish that.
What a difference from 2000, when Ralph Nader cut into Al Gore's support and, quite arguably, cost him the election. Today, few activists want to go there. "Repenticide" is what Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive Jewish journal Tikkun, calls the current mind-set on the leftand Nader seems to have read the signals. "The Greens and other indies are holding their breath to see what happens in the Democratic Party," says Stanley Aronowitz, who ran for New York governor last year on the Green Party line. For many leftists, only the nomination of Joseph Lieberman would push them toward a third-party candidate. As Glen Ford, co-publisher of the astute and often acerbic website blackcommentator.com, puts it, "Our position is: anybody but Lieberman."
For the first time since the '60s, radicals are willing to break bread with the Democratic mainstream. What accounts for this change? In a word, experience. The coalescing of free marketeers and fundamentalists into a potent right-wing political force has driven the left to reconsider its usual strategy of divide and be conquered. "Too often, progressives were unwilling to act together on anything until they agreed on everything," says Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation. "That is gone. We can hold two visions in our mind. There's the long-term building of a movement, but in the short term this is the worst government the country has ever had. Imagine what Bush would do with even a tiny mandate. We've seen what he can do with no mandate. We've got to move on that basis."
But (it wouldn't be the left without that word) it's far from clear what the most pragmatic course is at this stage. "Why should we torture ourselves over who has a better chance of beating Bush when we don't know?" asks syndicated progressive columnist Norman Solomon. "The polls point in several directionsand the time for tactical voting is in the general election."
Right now, many lefties are unwilling to desert the candidates who speak their language. Dennis Kucinich still enjoys wide support in these circles. But "not everyone is lining up behind him," says Cagan. "Howard Dean has generated a lot of support among anti-globalists." Meanwhile, NOW has endorsed Carol Moseley Braun. "If it weren't for her," says Haley, "we wouldn't be hearing about women's issues at alland that was part of the decision." By the same logic, Charles Barron, the most militant voice on the New York City Council, skewers black politicians like Charles Rangel who have lined up with Clark. "Who is Clark?" Barron asks. "What has he done for black people? We should unite around Reverend Sharpton. At least that would give us leverage."
Some Sharpton supporters are convinced he can deal a real blow to his rivals. "People are going to be surprised by his showing, especially in the South Carolina primary," says Ford, of blackcommentator.com. "I'd be surprised if Sharpton doesn't get 40 percent of the black vote there. He's going to be No. 2. And he'll get 30 percent of the black vote nationally." Moseley Braun won't cut into Sharpton's numbers, according to Ford, since "her support is mostly among white women." Nor do many activists think Kucinich has a shot. "If he ever got the nomination," says Aronowitz, "the party establishment and its corporate sponsors would abandon Kucinich. They may abandon Dean."
If this sounds like the usual jab at the centrist and trilateralist Democratic Leadership Council, it isn't merely that. The real problem, says Aronowitz, is "the heavy hand of the two-party system." The left is less obsessed with the DLC these days, if only because, as vanden Heuvel maintains, "it has lost its sway on the party." Dean stands well outside this fold, and there's speculation that Clark's candidacy is Bill Clinton's way of breaking with the DLC, which is widely regarded as responsible for Lieberman. As for the man whom conservatives (along with socially conservative liberals) see as the Great Satan, few leftists are focusing on Clinton's perfidy these days. But they haven't forgotten that this "New Democrat" all but wiped out welfare.
"Had Bush Sr. been re-elected in '92, I doubt that his policies would have been significantly worse than Clinton's, and there would have been a strong counterforce pushing the country in a different direction," says Tikkun's Michael Lerner. "Instead, we chose Clinton and got an undermining of liberal thinking by the person who supposedly represented that thinking." This subversion laid the foundation for Dubya. By electing a Democrat like Clark or Dean, who are really "moderate Republicans," Lerner says, we may be "creating someone even worse than Bush." The only solution is "an attractive candidate who articulates a clearly alternative worldview."
If that seems like sci-fi, it isn't. But neither is it an option nowand we are living in a material world. So, to pose the classic leftist question, what is to be done? The answer is to ask more questions.
With Rush Limbaugh, William Safire, and Andrew Sullivan gunning for him, Clark is making all the right enemies. But what does he stand for? "Is Clark really anti-war?" vanden Heuvel wonders. "We now learn that he's confused. Is he a populist on economics? Unlikely. He's someone we should scrutinize. But he's also someone who's been ushered into this campaign by Clinton and Michael Moore." In fact, Moore issued an open letter urging Clark to run. Not a popular move among radicals interviewed for this piecebut it shows how drawn many progressives are to a maybe-liberal who looks like a winner, even though he may be "a hologram," as blackcommentator's Glen Ford maintains.
Is this bad faith or sauve qui peutsave what you can? Perhaps the more salient question is: Can Clark catch fire beyond the left? It may be that progs, for all their aversion to war, have an exaggerated view of what military credentials are worth. Praising the people and passing the ammunition may not be a winning combo for most voters. In the end, Americans may prefer a National Guard dropout who knows how to wear a flight suit to a real warrior.
The future of progressive politics depends not just on its vision but on its image. So perhaps the best advice the left can give any candidate is to stay away from Naomi Wolf. As Al Gore learned too late, earth tones = death.
Research assistance: Matthew Phillp
"Wesley Clark's Changing Tune on Iraq" By Sydney H. Schanberg
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.