By the end of this week, Wesley Clark could be the 10th Democrat to enter the presidential race. It’s a long shot, to be sure, but the fact that two-thirds of voters in a recent poll couldn’t name any Democratic candidate shows how open the contest is. As the first four-star general in modern history to run as a Democrat, Clark could fill this void. To understand his potential, consider how Republicans are already tarring him with the wuss brush. “A blow-dried Napoleon,” snarked Tom DeLay, while George Will called the Bosnia operation Clark ran as NATO commander “the liberals’ dream war” whose overriding aim was “to have zero U.S. fatalities.” Not a manly tangle, like the one in which we’re now ensnared.
It remains to be seen whether Clark can steal Dean’s thunder—or whether he will settle for being someone’s veep. But Clark may prevail by positioning himself as the anti-war warrior. He opposed the Iraqi invasion from the gung-ho git-go. He’s against the Patriot Act, for affirmative action, and firmly pro-choice. While he’s dodgy on gay issues—declaring himself against same-sex marriage but discreetly allowing that he favors civil unions—Clark has signaled that he would order a reconsideration of the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. We’ll see whether this adds up to a progressive agenda.
Right now, there’s no record to point to, since Clark has never held office. What he does have is strong ties to Europe via NATO. That should resonate against Bush’s blunderous provincialism. And it would be novel to have a president without major ties to the Fortune 500. Unlike Dean, whose aristo roots sometimes show beneath his populist ‘do, Clark knew poverty as a child. As the campaign heats up, this narrative of the self-made military man could loom larger than the question of political creds.
Much will be made of Clark’s Clinton connection. Both men are Rhodes scholars from Arkansas whose fathers died when they were very young. Their friendship is a real asset for Clark given his political obscurity, but in the long run it might become a liability. You can count on the titans of talk radio to hammer home his alliance with the Great Fornicator and his Demon Queen. After all, the Clintons represent everything angry white men hate about liberalism today, and Clark is being positioned as a bridge to that constituency. As things stand, only 22 percent of white males call themselves Democrats.
Can guys who savor the Spike network bond with Clinton’s man? The less gullible among them may. Certainly Clark’s four stars are a lot more authentic than Bush’s strategically padded flight suit. And in the end, the presidency will depend not just on ideology but on how each candidate presents himself as a man.
Gender is the great unspoken force in American politics. It’s every bit as powerful as race and class, perhaps more so because it seldom gets addressed. The fear and loathing that feminism inspires in many men (most of whom won’t admit their terror) have enabled the Republicans to adapt the racial strategy that won them the South to the contours of sexual politics. The result is a gender gap in which straight white men tend to root for Republicans while women and minorities lean Democratic. This alignment is the reason why Al Gore beat Bush in the popular vote.
For a while it looked as if 9-11 had demolished the gender paradigm, but it’s already showing up in the California gubernatorial race, where women and minorities favor Cruz Bustamante while white boys are het up for Arnold. His Terminator persona is an FX version of the hyper-masculine performance that has made Bush the first president to inspire an action-hero doll.
But this aggravated macho has consequences, as the quagmire in Iraq demonstrates. And there’s nothing like a stagnant economy to put male megalomania in perspective. Just as bitch slapping is losing its cultural luster, a related shift may be happening in politics. People are beginning to see through Bush’s macho stance. It has always looked a little ripe, precisely because it’s a product of uncertainty. But that quality of bluster in the face of self-doubt was once a point of connection between Bush and men who felt threatened (and there are millions of those). Now that the so-called crisis of masculinity has become an actual world crisis, the president’s compensatory swagger reads as it really is: dangerous.
You can bet your brewski that Democratic strategists are searching for a candidate with the right kind of masculine presentation, one that seems nurturing to women and reassuring to men. This is where Clark comes in. If Clinton was a bottom-feeding Rhett Butler, Clark is Ashley Wilkes. And because he’s struggled for his genteel bearing, the way folks who rise in the military often do, it looks much more accomplished than Bush’s G.I. George act.
Of course, a lot can happen in a year, including another terrorist attack or a well-timed war. But it’s unlikely that Americans would approach either with the same crude sense of limitless clout. We have to be canny and cooperative now. The days of Dirty Harry, the enforcer who makes his own rules, are over. And Clark seems to draw from the other Clint Eastwood, the man who comprehends complexity and endures in the face of pain. America may be ready for that kind of cowboy.
I don’t take solace in uniforms, and I’m more likely to admire those who resisted the Vietnam War than those who distinguished themselves by fighting in it, as Clark did. I don’t trust avowed centrists (who often turn out to be closet neocons) and I’m not eager to get into bed with a creature of the Democratic Leadership Council. I’d rather shack up with Liza Minnelli.
But it would be dishonest to claim that the events of 9-11 haven’t affected me. I live a mile from ground zero, and that gives me a very tangible perspective on security. I opposed the Iraq adventure because it reeked of the macho logic that had given us Vietnam, and it is turning out pretty much as I feared. But I’m open to a candidate, in or out of uniform, who knows how to form the kind of global alliances that will keep me alive. And as for sleeping with centrists, after four years of Bush I wouldn’t reject an unreliable suitor whose heart seems positive if not pure—as long as he can win.
That begs the question of whether falling for the military mystique can be anything but a patriarchal gesture. I worry about that, but at this point I’m willing to settle for anyone who advances the process of social change, even modestly. Maybe I’m fronting for my own retreat, but I’ve come to believe the revolution that endures is the one that happens slowly. And if Clark can make America see the difference between macho and masculinity—that is, between a defensive response to women and a confident one—he just might earn the ultimate star, as commander in chief.
Research: Matthew Phillp