The Question all the Candidates Must Face

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In New Hampshire last week, I bumped into Howard Dean's worst nightmare. Her name is Ruth Bedinger. She is retired and working in the Dean campaign office as a volunteer. I met her at a house party for General Wesley Clark.

"I'm switching to Clark," she told me, after listening to the general's new, sleek stump speech. "When I saw Dean speak, it was like a revival meeting—very exciting but not much detail. This was a lot more intelligent and cogent. There was no anger here, which is the one thing I was worried about with Dean."

Bedinger's change of heart seemed indicative of a tectonic shift in the Democratic electorate, a phenomenon deeper than the sudden waning of Dean's poll numbers—a movement toward sobriety and away from bombast, a search for a candidate with ballast. The easiest way for a politician to flaunt his gravitas is to show some interest in foreign policy, but this is risky for Democrats, who tend to believe that their core supporters care only about domestic issues. It is true that most of the questions I've heard at candidate meetings over the past few weeks have been about the usual stuff—health care, education and the economy. But I suspect there is a more serious question lurking, unasked: Does this guy have the maturity, temperament, knowledge and skill to stand next to George W. Bush in a debate and talk credibly about keeping America safe? The question is rarely asked because the answer can't be put into words. It has to do with how a candidate presents himself, how solid he seems. In 2004, foreign policy expertise is a character issue.

This new terrain plays to Clark's strengths. He has broad, nuanced foreign and defense policy experience. He has a commanding presence and radiates a brisk military competence. When I last checked in on Clark in early December, he seemed an Army officer trying to act like a politician. Now he's a politician.

He not only has a stump speech but he's got the body language down too. During a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire last week, Clark was confronted by a man waving a thick sheaf of insurance forms—the paperwork required in treating his wife's breast cancer. His question was, "Isn't this ridiculous?" but Clark didn't respond immediately. He first turned to the wife and asked how she was feeling now. Fine, she said. Then he asked the husband a series of thoughtful questions about the nature of his health insurance. This sort of aerobic empathy has been standard, if subtle, political tradecraft ever since Bill Clinton—but the general has assimilated the playbook at warp speed. Clark's new stump speech has a quality not often found in political oratory: it is charming. He is able, somehow, to shed his brass and re-create his lonely, impoverished childhood in Arkansas: his patriotic attempt to master chemistry and build a backyard rocket after the Russians launched Sputnik; his decision, at age 5, to attend the Baptist church in Little Rock because the stained-glass windows reminded him of the Methodist church he'd attended in Chicago before his father died; his struggle to raise a family on a military salary; the car he totally rebuilt because he couldn't afford a new one. There is a careful structure to the speech. The anecdotes connect to four core values—patriotism, faith, family and inclusiveness—that Clark then turns against the Republicans. After the Baptist-church story, for example, he talks about the Republican Party's misuse of religion: "They act like they have a direct pipeline to the Lord God Almighty ... but every religion I've ever studied agrees that people who have advantages in life have an obligation to help those who don't have advantages." The emotional heart of the speech, though, is Clark's dismay over the Bush Administration's misuse of "the precious lives of our men and women in uniform" in Iraq—and that is where he will often run into problems. At times, his passion spills over into an almost Deanian imprudence. At a Texas fund raiser last week, Clark thundered, "We're dealing with the most closed, imperialistic, nastiest Administration in living memory. They even put Richard Nixon to shame. They are a threat to what this nation stands for."

Clark also has an Iraq problem. "I was always against the war," he says, but that seems to be shorthand for a more complicated position. On his second day as a candidate, Clark told reporters that he probably would have voted for the congressional Iraq war resolution. On his third day as a candidate, he vehemently retracted that statement. Last week the Republican National Committee trotted out excerpts from Clark's testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 26, 2002—in which he appeared to support the resolution. Actually, Clark said, "I think it's not time yet to use force against Iraq, but it is certainly time to put that card on the table, to turn it face up and to wave it." He added that a congressional resolution was "required to leverage any hope of solving this problem short of war." So he was against the immediate use of force but in favor of the resolution?

Not quite. "It was clear that the Administration was determined to go to war," Clark told me last week, in an effort to parse his testimony. "I disagreed with that priority, but if you couldn't persuade the President to put it aside, you could try to work it through the United Nations ... I learned in the Balkans that diplomacy requires the threat of force—and so I favored a congressional resolution." But not the resolution that was eventually passed.

He wanted Bush to return to Congress for another vote before taking the country to war. "I never favored giving the President a blank check." Maybe not, but Clark never had to take a vote on the issue, and there is an antsy quality to his tap dancing that is not reassuring. It reinforces other eruptions of loose talk—statements that weren't very statesmanlike, rumors he has reported as fact. Last fall, for example, Clark stated without equivocation or any proof that Donald Rumsfeld had leaked his own "long hard slog" Iraq memo. This sort of carelessness is strange in an obviously disciplined military man. If foreign policy is a character issue, the general is in danger of appearing to be a cad. But at least Clark is talking about national security. Not every Democrat is.

Dick Gephardt and John Edwards hardly mention foreign policy in their speeches. Both voted for the war, but they seem to have done so as a matter of convenience—to get the issue "off the table" so they could concentrate on populist economics. An Edwards adviser told me the Senator wasn't emphasizing foreign policy because "that's not what people are interested in." That seems myopic. The Edwards ascendancy has been stunted by the Senator's youthful appearance—he could use the opposite of Botox—and there is no more painless way to inject gravitox into a campaign than to speak with knowledge and controlled passion about foreign policy issues.

Howard Dean was early and clear against the war, which provided the initial propulsion for his candidacy, but he's had no second act. When asked about his lack of foreign and military expertise, he has said that all the candidates "talk to the same experts"—as if talking to experts were enough. But Dean has a far more serious problem, his Ruth Bedinger problem: his intemperance. It is difficult to imagine this huffy, impertinent man in a delicate diplomatic negotiation; it is difficult to imagine him showing the resolute but gentle public touch that George W. Bush displayed after Sept. 11. That leaves—in addition to Clark—Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman as the only plausible foreign policy candidates in the Democratic field.

Both Kerry and Lieberman are solid men; both have emphasized their foreign policy expertise—and both have serious problems with the Democratic electorate. Lieberman's problem is the more serious: he is an inveterate hawk with a reliably neoconservative—if not quite unilateral—view of America's role in the world. Most Democrats disagree with that. Kerry's problem is political. He voted for the war resolution, but it seemed a tactical vote, taken so that Republicans couldn't accuse him of mortal dovishness (Kerry voted against the first Gulf War). The Senator has criticized Bush for his conduct of the war almost since the day the Iraq resolution passed, and he has voted against the $87 billion needed to demonstrate America's resolve in Iraq. But Kerry has never disavowed his vote to authorize the war. It is difficult, to this day,

To know whether or not he thinks the invasion was a good idea, and in this tangled confusion lies an uncertainty that diminishes his presidential stature. Clearly, none of the Democrats present the perfect, strong-willed, adult foreign policy package. But the President doesn't seem all that daunting either—he's a slave to his TelePrompTer, rolling out empty nostrums, unable to sustain a serious discussion of his own policies. In the end, Bush and a Democrat will stand on the same stage. The central question will be a simple one: Have George W. Bush's policies made us safer in the world? The question for Democrats now is equally simple: Which of these guys can stand on that stage and make the case against Bush? Everything else is window dressing.