Ballot Box


The virtues and shortcomings of Wes Clark’s earnestness.

The importance of being bor … earnest.

Monday night, Wes Clark became the 10th presidential candidate to appear at a series of forums hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. The series has given each candidate 90 minutes to deliver a spiel and to answer questions from Iowans. I’ve seen a few Clark speeches and a town hall meeting, but this event clarified where he fits into the Democratic field: He’s the earnest guy.

Two weeks ago, at the only debate he’s attended so far, Clark was full of canned answers. His performance was good but not distinctive from the career politicians onstage. Maybe debates aren’t his strong suit, or maybe he should just can the canned stuff. Either way, in a town hall format, he’s much more appealing. The reason is that he doesn’t have to put on a show. He can just be what he is: bland and sincere.

If you’re sick of earnestness, or you don’t trust it, or you find it dangerously naive, this isn’t the candidate for you. He habitually begins his answers with, “The honest truth is …” When Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich starts a sentence that way, you know he’s about to snow you. I don’t get that feeling with Clark. I get the feeling that to him it’s a form of thoughtless politeness, like “Sir” or “Ma’am.”

Watching Clark answer questions, you almost can’t believe he’s running for president. Does he support equal rights for gays? Yes. Has ultrasound affected his view of abortion? I’m pro-choice. It’s hard to convey the artlessness of his responses. You don’t see his eyes, jaws, or hands working over the question, probing for threats and opportunities, the way John Kerry or John Edwards does. One hand grips the mike; the other hangs in his pocket. He stares at the questioner, unblinking. His eyebrows never rise. Neither does his voice.

At one point, Harkin asks about the Americans with Disabilities Act, Harkin’s pride and joy. “I was just rereading it the other day,” says Clark. I think to myself: Aha! He fakes it just like the rest. But then I consider the clumsiness of this admission that he crammed for the event. Later, Harkin asks with a wink, “We all have to know here in Iowa, are you OK on ethanol?” Clark says “yes” with a deferential grin, hanging his head like a grunt appeasing his sergeant. He can’t keep a straight face for this one. I’d prefer candor, but shame is the next best thing.

Clark’s earnestness matches his message. Edwards, Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Lieberman are basically ideological. When possible, they frame their policy critiques as moral indictments. Kerry tries to be ideological but sounds phony because he’s basically practical. That’s why he goes around promising “a better set of choices” and wondering why that promise doesn’t excite people.

Clark is a more genuine and—if this is possible—less exciting version of Kerry. He makes no attempt to dress up his practicality. If he were a senator, this would be a disaster. But because he’s a soldier and has killed bad guys, it works. At the Iowa forum, Clark argues that Americans are pragmatic, and he criticizes the Bush administration accordingly:

They do things backward. They have some preconceived solutions, and then they look for circumstances that they can use to excuse putting those solutions in place. They had a tax cut plan. Well, first it was, “The government had too much of our money,” so they were gonna give our money back. And then it was, “We were in a recession.” But it wasn’t exactly like the tax cut was designed to pull us out of the recession. Most of the cuts were way out in the future. … It was a solution looking for a problem. Same thing happened with Iraq. These guys were talking about going into Iraq back before the election. … They used 9/11 as the pretext to take us into that war, I think under false pretenses.

This critique lacks the moral edge of Dean’s attack on Bush’s divisiveness or Edwards’ attack on Bush’s elitism. But it has greater truth and, I suspect, broader resonance with public opinion. It doesn’t demand that you think Bush is a bad guy or the Republican Party is evil. It only demands that you to look at the facts and put them together to form a relatively charitable, though fatal, conclusion: Bush lacks the temperament to adapt and solve problems as a president must. Gephardt calls Bush a failure and posits that the failure would continue in a second term, but he doesn’t explain why. Clark explains why.

In the campaign, Clark’s earnestness is an asset. Democrats are trying to paint him as a Republican opportunist. Republicans are trying to paint him as a Clintonesque truth-stretcher. These portrayals won’t stick because they don’t fit his demeanor. Clark has one Clintonesque moment during the Iowa forum, when a guy asks about his May 2001 praise for the Bush administration. “I never met George W. Bush, and if you look at exactly the words I said, I said there was a great team there, and then I mentioned the president’s name.” But then Clark adds, “Not to be cute about it,” and goes on to explain how his misgivings about Bush hardened.

If Clark gets the nomination, there will be downsides. He has the ability to take the same indictment with which Dean has fired up countless crowds—”The American people were led into Iraq on false pretenses”—and make it sound like a corporate annual report. The presidency he envisions sounds equally soporific: “Let’s get an administration in Washington that can face the problems, communicate ‘em honestly, face ‘em honestly, pull people together of all political stripes, and solve ‘em together as Americans.”

But the real peril of earnestness isn’t that it’s boring as a campaign theme. The real peril is that it’s insufficient as a governing philosophy. At the Iowa forum, Clark says of the standardized tests by which Bush measures schools, “That’s only one way of measuring children. The most important measurement is what’s not in the No Child Left Behind Act—that is, can we develop the full human potential of every boy and girl in America?” Later, Clark draws a parallel, as he has done before, between developing soldiers and developing citizens: Just as the Army trains recruits to “be all you can be,” schools, employers, and other institutions must help civilians “develop their full human potential.”

I don’t know whether standardized tests measure the kind of progress we want. But I know they measure something. That’s more than I can say for human potential, being all you can be, and the other earnest aspirations of a Clark administration.