Monday, February 02, 2004

Four Stars for Effort, An Asterisk for Content

Saturday we took a nice walk in the woods to take advantage of a break in the weather, and high up on the trail, we passed a couple wearing Wes Clark buttons. I'm always interested in people who have the interest to show their beliefs on their sleeves (or their lapels, as in this case), so I greeted them with the friendly cry:

"Hey, Wes Clark supporters!"

Like I'd spotted a Western Boobie in a forest known more for Acorn Woodpeckers.

I've been really fascinated by this campaign, for one reason, because among the many Democrats I know -- ranging from Kucinich birkenstockers to McCain cross-over voters -- it's been surprisingly hard to predict who's-supporting-whom. My sister, who hates NAFTA, is standing as a Dean delegate; my father, who was livid about the war, was completely smitten with Dick Gephardt and even now can't help but talk him up as a Vice-Presidential candidate. The guy who fixed my furnace last week, who's originally from Mexico City and confessed he had come to the US illegally, was heavily into Joe Lieberman. As much as one can try to typecast supporters of each candidate, my personal experiences have defied those typecasts.

We live in an area with a significant military presence, and as I've written about before, one of the disappointing trends in electoral responsiveness in the last generation has been the transformation of the professional military class into a nearly completely-Republican mass. It's hard to find somebody else who's keenly interested in a responsive and modern military who's not a Bush supporter. So Wes Clark has had a fascination for me as a career guy who sounds to the left of Lyndon Johnson when he talks about social programs, but who still smells and talks like a Republican somehow. If you know a man by the company he keeps, I sought to understand the Clark candidacy a little better in getting to know this couple.

Well, to make a long story short: it turns out this couple had relocated to our area within the year, and had moved from Massachussetts. They, like my parents and nearly every other Massachussetts liberal I know, were disenchanted with Kerry from long familiarity with him, so they saw Clark as the most electable guy with a war record. "Anyone but Bush," everybody can agree on, but after that, the reasons for many candidates are meta-reasons: perceived electability, an acceptable checklist of positions, and in Clark's case, part of the anti-war vote that Howard Dean has lost by being a big loser-boy.

They were a charming couple and we had a good conversation. I remain unconvinced Clark wouldn't be whacked around the room by the whack a mole team at the RNC, given that he's re-reversed himself on his core issues so much I can't quite keep the current version straight. When I suggested to the couple that perhaps the best strategy for the Democrats was to come together and announce a cabinet now - Edwards as VP, Gephardt at Labor, Dean at H&HS, Clark at Defense, and Kerry at the top of the ticket by default - they didn't miss a beat and said "you mean CLARK at the top of the ticket". Them's true believers; Deaniacs have some company.

John Kerry showing the common touch

But the more I think about it, the more a cross between Atticus Finch and Matlock, a slick good ole boy trial lawyer with virtually no record, sounds good if you want electability. It's not about the resume, it's about whether the swing voter would be comfortable having the candidate over for dinner when the carpet hasn't been vacuumed in some time. When I think of Clark stopping by the house, I still straighten up subconsciously and check to see if my fly is zipped up and wonder when the last time the toilet bowl had been whisked out.

At some point I'm going to write about Al Sharpton, who's by far been the most effective debater of the campaign, and who, without a chance in hell of being elected, has the benefit of being completely honest when he's campaigning. I crossed Al off my list early (here's where I admit I happily voted for Jesse Jackson in 1988 in the primary, even though Mike Dukakis was my wife's cousin's neighbor's son and quite a smart guy for a Swarthmore grad, because I thought Jackson was a more appealing candidate, even though I knew Dukakis had it in the bag at the time) largely because he was either too stubborn or too dumb to admit Tawana Brawley was a liar. Not coming clean in an incident where there were manifestly false allegations, imho, needlessly hurt his credibility when later incidents of true police brutality surfaced in New York, and without another resume, he's about as qualified as Great Aunt Betty. That does not take away from the fact he's calling it like it is.

My one note about Sharpton right now: I haven't met a single Sharpton supporter randomly, and he's the only candidate I can say that about. Yes, I've even run into Carol Mosely-Braun and Bob Graham supporters. But that begs the question: are we supporting Democratic candidates in reverse order of their truth-telling (and perhaps entertainment) value?

If that's the case, maybe it's an indication we're just trying to find somebody who can out-lie Bush, and Clark and Kerry and Dean are at the top of the list because of their propensity for the convenient whopper.

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