Monday, January 26, 2004

Candidate Clark: Tough guy for a tough crowd

To win in November against President George W. Bush, Democrats not only need a candidate with an attractive domestic agenda; they need a tough guy. Circumstances in foreign affairs demand it, and General Wesley Clark fits the bill, a sorely needed shot of testosterone for the liberals' image.

The left is losing support from blue collar America, a trend that must reverse for the sake of the party and nation. Many everyday Americans love their country and, correctly or not, fear that liberals do not. These voters think any Democrat President would be soft on defense.

These voters are wrong, but whether their perceptions are inaccurate is a moot point. As the well-known marketing theory goes, the perception is the reality. Relentless conservative rhetoric, over many years, has firmly implanted the perception, one that many political wonks would agree is deserved.

Once upon a time, tough guys voted Democrat. Then we entered Vietnam, and the peace movement hijacked the Democrat Party. A long series of related political episodes transformed, in a fundamental way, what it means to be a Democrat. The party eventually ceded control to extremists who commandeered liberal politics, nominated George McGovern for the Presidency, and despised tough guys. Leftist radicals-love them or hate them-have maintained undue control and radiated a wimpy persona ever since.

The situation is warped. Democrats wage war, too, after all. Johnson and John F. Kennedy started the very war that gave rise to the 1960s peace movement. And Franklin Roosevelt tag-teamed with his fellow Democrat, Harry Truman, to lead these United States into and out of World War II, victorious.

Fast-forward to 2004. If they are to reclaim the White House, liberals must remind potential voters that Democrats like and want to defend this country. No Democratic contender, except for Clark, can do this unequivocally.

What about Senator John Kerry? At first blush, John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, looks like a solid pro-military Democrat candidate who could beat George W. Bush. Many think he can trump the old stigma, and he might still. But Kerry, current frontrunner and flavor of the week, continually faces conservative pundits' charges, despite his decorated military service, that he is a dove.

Kerry's Vietnam-era dissent surely might galvanize the leftist radical base in his favor, but it will also rally the right-wing radicals against him. For good or ill, many Americans like to think our involvement in Vietnam was a good thing, and their grassroots opinion effort is already underway. The invective evident in viewers' calls to Sunday morning shows such as C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" this past weekend proves it.

The Democrat Party must woo back tough guys. Out there in spades, they vote in droves, and nothing will keep them home on Election Day. Everything Kerry does well to woo lifelong Democrat voters to win the party's nomination would doom him in a general election against President Bush. And that is not a slight against Kerry, but an acknowledgment that conservatives have a clear edge in attracting the tough guy's vote. Just ask Rush Limbaugh.

The soft-on-defense image of Democrats is, in historical context, both fair and erroneous, but hope exists. The Clark candidacy is a bona fide response to history. It says, "We hear, understand, and respect you," to tough guys everywhere. Given General Clark as the choice, tough guys will vote Democrat once again.