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THE HOTLINE

BACKSEAT DRIVING:
Pouring Cold Water On Clark Before He Even Hits A NH Simmer 

By Mike Murphy

I've received a smattering of emails in the Backseat Driving inbox asking why I don't much mention the candidacy of retired General Wes Clark. It's mostly because I don't think he has a chance. But since the latest heap of ever bouncing N.H. poll numbers has shown a minor bounce for the General, I smell the media winding up for another mini Clark boomlet. So let's take a look at Clark.

I'm of the view that the Presidential primary horserace tends to be covered in surprisingly predictable patterns. A reliable event is the third quarter Bright New Face Bonanza, whereby a bored media discovers an exciting new candidate and briefly goes hog wild. Pete Wilson got this bounce in 1995, and General Clark received it earlier this year, as contrived as it may have been.

For months a "spontaneous" Clark for President movement, complete with radio ads, was afoot in New Hampshire although there was a clear mysterious Harlem via Arkansas twang to the whole scam. After answering America's call and entering the race to great fanfare Clark has fumbled from one rookie mistake to the next. His process-oriented message— Clark is a winner — reflects his base; he's a finance echo chamber candidate. As I've written in an earlier Backstreet column, primary voters care very little about electability. (Tour the bulging graveyard of "electable" primary contenders sometime; start with President John Glenn's monument, it stands next to the Bob Graham for President Because Florida Will Make the Difference mausoleum.)

But top party fund-raisers often swoon for candidates with snazzy electability arguments and the half-baked carom shot strategies that too often accompany them. Clark has a doozy; "We'll get the anti-war crowd because he's anti-war, and the pro-war Southern vote because he's a GENERAL..." (A Republican version of this silliness is the Condi Rice for Vice-President Masterstroke equation which stipulates that if our talented NSC Advisor was suddenly shanghaied from her non-political job and shoehorned into the VP slot on the ticket, the election would be over because all Republicans, all African Americans and all women would unquestioningly vote a straight GOP ticket.)

Since most finance bigwigs not so quietly believe the perilous Terry McAuliffe theory — that their talents would be far better utilized coolly surveying the vast canvas of Grand Political Strategy than hustling their friends for yet more thousand dollar lunch tickets — it is easy to see why beguiling campaigns like Wesley Clark's quickly get to take-off speed in the big donor world. Hollywood's Democratic donors are the worst, with the biggest egos and the biggest attraction to master stoke campaign ideas. So it's no surprise that Clark is reportedly moving up into a distant second behind the uber-trendy Howard Dean in the west L.A. money primary.

Since he started late Clark has one advantage: his campaign hasn't had a chance to blow millions of dollars on overhead, preparation for unseen cable TV debates, and chasing county commissioners in Iowa, leaving it plenty of cash to buy TV ads. But even Clark's television ads reflect a big donor's idea of sure-fire effectiveness: they are pretty and well produced with big music, dramatic still photography, impressive information about Gen Clark's work in Bosnia and his brainy — hint, hint — ability to speak multiple languages. He's a sure winner.

Yup, I predict he's soon finished. Clark's NH numbers are a minor bump up, driven mostly by a vacuum created by Sen. John Kerry's death rattle. The Iowa caucus bounce is going to drive N.H. At best maybe Clark can stumble to third in N.H. and then be finished on Feb. 3's Groundhog Tuesday. (Or as I prefer to call it: The Dream Crusher.)

Clark's central weakness is a function of his perceived appeal: he is a first time political candidate and it shows. The Presidential fast lane is no place to learn electoral politics. The Clark campaign is little more than a spinner's card trick aimed as the donor elite and the media (which should have known better when it gave him that ridiculous entry splash, yet alone this new one.). Like the Tsar's Potemkin village, the structure, message and base appeal needed for a Clark primary victory isn't there. Wesley Clark had a huge gift of launch publicity and he just wasn't politician enough to know what to do with it. Over the next few months Wesley Clark will re-learn a central lesson of military strategy. Don't send untrained troops into battle.

Hotline Column, Backseat Driving, December, 8, 2003.

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