Monday, June 30, 2008

Reason #414 Why I Couldn't Do Electoral Politics

So General Wesley Clark, a decorated veteran, was on TV the other day talking about John McCain's qualifications for the Presidency. Namely, that in Clark's opinion, he doesn't have any.
"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 -- although I'm not sure that "qualifications" is the right frame for this. Generally, we hold being a US Senator to be a solid qualification for the Presidency. Clark's prior explanation for what he means -- that McCain is hinging his campaign on his unique background as a leader who's "been there" is better, and I guess qualifcations is a pithy way of talking about that. This is also is how he avoids that "Obama doesn't have it either" charge: Obama, Clark notes, isn't basing his campaign on his long background as a Washington leader. Obama's running a campaign based on his judgment and ideas.

But I digress.
[CBS' Bob] 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.

In a statement released by the McCain campaign Sunday afternoon, retired Admiral Leighton "Snuffy" Smith criticized Clark's comment.

"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."


Look. 1) Clark is totally right here. McCain's service was absolutely, 100% honorable. He showed bravery and courage in an unimaginably difficult and harrowing situation. That is not the same thing as a presidential qualification -- particularly, again, under the lens Clark is talking about: the question of having executive responsibility. 2) This was self-evidently not a "questioning", much less an "attack", on "John McCain's service to his country." That's just a bullshit rendition of Clark's claim. Getting shotdown in Vietnam shows many things about a man, but it does not automatically qualify one for the Presidency. If that's now anti-veteran, there's no way to avoid it.

And I can't do electoral politics, because I can't handle the sort of mealy-mouthedness that might turn this into an actual story framed around "Obama surrogate attacks McCain."


schiller1979 said...

After having observed elections for more than four decades, I guess I've learned how to tune out that sort of noise. But I suppose if one is directly involved in a campaign, one doesn't have that luxury. That's a big reason why I don't do electoral politics, despite having dabbled in it during my student days.

Anonymous said...

But why did Gen. Clark feel that military service WAS an important qualifier for Sen. Kerry in '04? His entire speech at the convention was centered on that premise- even going as far as to say that Kerry's moral courage had been born in battle-IOW, that his military service was THE formative event in shaping his character for leadership.

So what's changed in four years?

PG said...

Clark's speech at the convention was not saying that military service was an inherently important qualifier. Rather, he was making the point that Democrats are capable of making good war leaders, that Republicans do not hold a monopoly on that title. He spoke not only about Kerry's military service, but also about Kerry's later protesting the war and his service to the country as a prosecutor and senator. At absolutely no point in the speech does he say or imply that Kerry's opponent was NOT qualified due to a lack of combat experience. Indeed, he says "John Kerry will join that pantheon of great wartime Democrats": Wilson, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Clinton. Of that group, only Kennedy and Truman had combat experience, although FDR had been assistance secretary of the navy during WWI.

There actually is very little that has changed in the past 4 years. In 2004, Republicans claimed Democrats were too weak to be trusted with national security; in 2008, the claim is replayed with the added fillip of the successful whisper campaign that Obama is a Manchurian Muslim candidate.

Anonymous said...

But you avoided the part of the speech that I highlighted, where Clark asserted that Kerry's character and moral values had been shaped by his wartime experiences. Why is that claim not equally valid for McCain- and for that matter, why is it not equally valid for the GOP to be highlighting McCain's potential as a great wartime president as Clark evidently felt was a decisive factor in '04? (I get that you're pointing out that he specifically felt that the Dems needed to prove that they could field a candidate with military cred- but shouldn't it be about what the nation needs, not what the party needs?)

Anonymous said...

I was awfully glad to see that you share my sentiments on this, because my initial reaction was that Clark's statements never should have drawn a reaction - the are factually true, and the idea that Wes Clark would demean the value of anyone's military service is absolutely incredible. Indeed, you'll notice that none of Clark's attackers actually claims that military service is a qualification for the presidency. What a stupid non-issue.

PG said...

It's fine to say that McCain's character and values were shaped by his wartime experience, and indeed people have made that point with regard to many of McCain's issue positions, ranging from torture (having gotten plenty of it, he's against it, mostly) to the prosecution of wars (having spent much of the war as a POW may have sheltered him both from experiencing the hostility of the people he was supposedly liberating and from being disillusioned by the lies of U.S. leadership).

I am afraid that the point you are missing about Clark's '04 convention speech is that he was making an argument on behalf of a Democrat that it never seems necessary to make on behalf of a Republican -- i.e., that the candidate is qualified to lead on national security. That's why he wanted to highlight Kerry's military experience.

In these latest remarks, Clark essentially was arguing against a strawman, because Eva is right -- no sane person has claimed that McCain is qualified by his military experience alone to be president of the U.S. However, it's even more ludicrous that, having demolished that strawman, Clark now is being attacked for something he never said.