General Wesley Clark: The Clark Effect
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GWEN IFILL: Former Gen. Wesley Clark joined the crowded Democratic presidential race only a week ago. But his arrival immediately changed the dynamics of a very fluid field. And as he prepares to participate in his first debate with the nine other candidates tomorrow night, all eyes are on him. Joining us to provide a little more background on a rapidly shifting campaign is Adam Nagourney, chief political writer for The New York Times. Hi, Adam.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Hi, Gwen, how are you doing?
GWEN IFILL: I’m fine. So what are we to make of this Clark spurt, whatever we’ve seen a couple polls. We have seen a lot of talk. What are we to make of that?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: A couple of points, Gwen. First of all, I would say that the level of interest that we have seen in the Clark campaign is more or at least as much a comment on how Democrats view the health of the rest of the Democratic field than on Governor Clark, excuse me, on General Clark. People don’t know a lot about him and they’re sort of investing in him a lot of their dreams of what an ideal candidate would be.
You’re finding in particular a lot of former Clinton people who coincidentally never ended up signing up with one of the other presidential campaigns jumping on this bandwagon now. But again I think people don’t know much about him. The next couple of days will be pretty critical in determining what kind of legs he will really has.
GWEN IFILL: People don’t know that much about him yet three separate polls have come out in the last week or so saying that he is leading the pack, whatever that means. I say that noting that Ronald Reagan was running for his re-election sometime ago, and at this point in the campaign he was being led by Walter Mondale and John Glenn.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: I think the lesson of those three polls are that never ever believe national political polls taken this early out in a race. I think polls taken in New Hampshire and Iowa, states where there’s a lot of activity, and for the most part informed voters are revealing, but all these national polls are showing are that… is that Wes Clark has gotten a lot of publicity over the past couple of days, people are intrigued about him. They’ve heard about him. They’ve seen him on the cover of Newsweek; they’ve seen him on cable TV all the time.
But, in terms of being a real measure in terms of what’s going on with the presidential campaign, I don’t think it is.
GWEN IFILL: Adam, if I’m not mistaken on the day after he announced last week you and three other reporters got on a plane with him and were granted an audience for about 90 minutes in which he made some interesting comments about the war suggesting that even though he has a reputation as an anti-war candidate that maybe he would have voted for the war resolution. Give us a little of the context of that conversation.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Yeah, he announced the day before and he had done a couple of relatively brief interviews and some television interviews, and he was flying down to Ft. Lauderdale, and we asked to get on the plane, the jet – thank God, I thought it was going to be a turbo prop. There were four of us, me and someone from The Los Angeles Times and someone from The Washington Post and someone from The Boston Globe.
He came to the back of the plane. And, I must say, Gwen, unconventionally for a political candidate he sort of sat down there and he spent the next 90 minutes talking.
We began asking him about Iraq. He started talking about how his sort of position evolved. I asked him would he have voted on the Iraqi resolution. He goes, I will get back to that in a minute. We asked him again. He went through this very long thing where he said he probably would have voted for it. He made the arguments for it and against it. But again and again he kept coming back and he said, ‘yeah, you know, I would have voted for the resolution. I probably would have voted for the resolution.’
You know, as we call it N-E-W-S — news in the business. Here was this antiwar candidate saying he was going to vote for the war resolution. That was pretty interesting. At one point his press secretary came back to join him to clarify or at least to expand on his remarks and said I think the quote was something to the effect of what the general is saying that he would have voted for the Iraqi resolution as a way to gain leverage with the U.N.
GWEN IFILL: Now Howard Dean, the other big candidate in this race at this point anyway, said today in The New York Times that he was shocked, shocked that General Clark would say such a thing. Does this mean… is what General Clark said which is that all things equal, he may have supported the resolution, is that different from what, say, John Kerry is saying this race?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: I don’t think actually… that’s a good question, Gwen, because I asked him on the plane, on the spectrum of things whether or not he would put himself closer among the presidential candidates to Howard Dean on one side or Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman, Gephardt — the guys who all voted for the congressional resolution on the other. He said he would put himself on that side.
It’s surprising only because he portended himself as… excuse me, is presenting himself as an antiwar candidate. If you were to close your eyes and just write down what he was saying, what he said in a lot of ways sounded very much like what Kerry has been saying and what Kerry has gotten a lot of heat for, more than any of the other Democrats who voted for the resolution, I think, as he has tried to sort of struggle through his position on the war.
Gwen, what surprised me this was the rationale for this guy getting into the campaign. You know, it wasn’t as if we were asking like to differentiate between Medicare B and Medicare A. It wasn’t like a gotcha question. It was a question for something he presumably had thought about.
I was a little bit surprised he didn’t have a clearer answer. The next day he went to Iowa and granted a series of interviews where he said he never would have voted for the resolution. The next day very quickly here one of his opponents helpfully dug up an Associated Press story from last October where he said he would have voted for the resolution, but whatever.
GWEN IFILL: This is all going to sort itself out. I have to ask you about the Clinton involvement. There has been a lot of discussion because he’s from Little Rock that he was urged into this race by Bill Clinton; that he’s a stalking horse for Hillary Clinton. What’s your best reporting on that?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: This is classic Clinton. You know what it’s like dealing with him. First of all I was at the Hillary Clinton breakfast here in Washington where Hillary Clinton again said she’s not running for president in 2004. My best reporting and my best guess is that that’s true. For a lot of reasons I don’t think it makes sense for her to run in 2004. I do think she’s running in 2008. I think it would cause her all kinds of problems in New York and nationally if she was to break her word and run for office again. I don’t buy that.
The other variation of that is that the Clintons just want to create sort of chaos in the race so that some Democrat loses so Hillary Clinton can win in 2008. I mean, it’s pretty cynical. I’m not sure that the Clintons needed to do much to cause trouble for the Democratic field right now, to be frank.
GWEN IFILL: One final question. That’s tomorrow night Wesley Clark will be getting on the stage with the other nine Democrats who are running for president. What will we be watching for? What will you be watching for?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Wesley Clark, Wesley Clark, Wesley Clark, Wesley Clark. I’ve been to a bunch of these debates. This is I think the third official one and probably the 340th time they’ve all appeared on the stage together. What everyone is going to be watching is Wesley Clark is now in the race.
We don’t know what he stands for, Gwen, on a whole series of issues whether it’s trade or late-term abortion or whatever. It will be interesting to see the extent to which he does or does not try to fill in his views and define himself for an audience with the rest of the field getting increasingly defined in terms of issues.
GWEN IFILL: Who are the rest of the field who will be taking their best shots at him?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: This is a good question. We’ll see whether they actually take him on. I don’t think I want to predict that. I think they’ll probably play it by ear and they might stand back and let him do what he has to do.
GWEN IFILL: Adam Nagourney, thanks a lot.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Thank you, Gwen.