So he’s in. Gen. Wesley Clark is, according to late reports, going to announce tomorrow in Little Rock that he’s running for the Democratic nomination for president. (I have to tell you that I had my ear pretty close to the ground on this one. And Clark really, really kept people guessing.)
I think this has the potential to turn the primary race completely upside-down. The Dean insurgency has almost completely defined the race to this point. At present, you can’t even call it an insurgency really since Dean is in fact the front-runner, by most reasonable measures. As I’ve written before, I think there’s a niche waiting to be filled just to Dean’s right. And the real mystery of the campaign so far is that none of the other contenders has managed to fill it and coalesce those who don’t support Dean behind their candidacy. Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards, Gephardt … none of them have managed it.
It’s an oversimplification, of course, to frame the matter just in left-right terms. It’s also a matter of tonality, the kind of campaign Dean is running, the demographic slice of the party he’s appealing to, and so on. The folks whom I respect most on this question believe Dean’s mix of Vermontly social liberalism and staunch opposition to the war will make it exceedingly difficult for him to appeal to the swing voters who will eventually decide the election in battleground states like Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. But, even beyond that point, strong insurgent candidacies generally force those who oppose those insurgencies to coalesce around a single candidate. And to date that hasn’t happened.
Of course, Dean’s supporters have an altogether different view of the matter. They believe that he is the only candidate who can beat George W. Bush, and that it is his early opposition to the war, the defiance of his message, and his social liberalism that makes him such a strong candidate.
To them I can only say that, with sincere respect, I disagree with their judgment. Or, at least, I’m deeply skeptical.
Now, what chance does Clark have?
All my experience of conventional, real-world politics tells me that political outsiders and late-entrants end up not winning. And that experience says that Clark doesn’t win. But this is already far from a normal or conventional political moment. Howard Dean’s extremely impressive run to date, if nothing else, shows that. Add to that the very unsettled international scene, President Bush’s wobbly approval ratings, a shaky economy, and the demonstrable inability — as noted above — for any of the other candidates to get any traction.
Here’s what I’ll be watching in the coming days.
How well does Clark do raising money? This is one of the main issues people are talking about when they say Clark is getting in too late: he’s so far behind the rest in fund-raising. But I think what the Dean campaign has shown us is that the Internet has made it possible to raise a lot of money quickly — from a vastly larger potential pool of givers than candidates have in the past — if you catch fire.
Of course, the ‘if’ is the big thing. But if Clark doesn’t catch fire quickly money won’t matter anyway. The problem in the old days was that candidates like a Gary Hart or a John McCain could catch fire and rocket in the polls and yet just not have the time to raise the money needed to sustain that surge. Small donor fund-raising on the Internet by no mean solves that problem for Clark. But I think it at least creates a possible solution to the dilemma of surging in the polls and still not being able to raise money quickly enough to avoid getting crushed by a better financed candidate.
What sort of team does he put together?
How do his opponents come after him? Clark was not universally popular in the Army. And he rubbed some powerful people the wrong way. I have no doubt that this opponents — both Dems and the Republicans — will air these issues thoroughly, as is their right. How and how well does Clark respond?
Of course, I have many other questions, many other things I’ll be watching for. But there’ll be time enough to get to those points later.