There’s one thing about the 2004 presidential election that will never stop bothering me: People have died because of it.
It is my belief that because President Bush was re-elected in 2004, more people – Iraqi civilians and American servicemen – have died in Iraq than would have died had Bush been voted out. You don’t have to agree; for the purposes of this column, it is enough that you know I believe it.
So now you’ll understand why I remain so bitter about 2004. I could care less for John Kerry or the hoards of liberal attack dogs that made that election as divisive and confusing as Bush’s minions made 2000. I care only about the fact that, in my opinion, the wrong man won and thousands have had to pay the price.
I could blame Ralph Nader for undermining Kerry’s credibility among strong Democrats, Bush for launching cowardly personal attacks or the cheaters who stole Ohio. But, at this point we almost have to take those things as given shortcomings of the American system. What bothers me above all else is that it was a new trend in the electoral process that gave the wrong man a “mandate” while leaving the right man reeling in its wake – and we’re making the same mistake again.
Of the many Democratic challengers who rose to oppose Bush, there was only one I ever thought could beat him. Howard Dean stomped around like a cave man with his early lead, Kerry gave long, winding speeches in his really high pants and John Edwards told us a million times about just what his father did (he was a mill-worker, in case you missed it). But I knew that these frontrunners had no shot; Bush had something on all of them.
There was only one man who scared the Rove/Cheney electoral war machine, one man mainstream enough to attract support from both sides and with a reputation that armored his persona to turn back even the most incisive of personal attacks. Gen. Wesley Clark was the only candidate in 2004 who could kick out a president in wartime and thereby avoid at least some of the death and destruction that has followed in Iraq because of Bush’s stubbornness.
Clark was a valedictorian of his class at West Point and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He received a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and a Meritorious Service Medal for his service in Vietnam (and he didn’t burn any of them, which helps his image today). He was Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in President Clinton’s second term and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000.
He was also an outspoken critic of Bush’s war in Iraq.
The Democrats dream candidate? At least in 2004, yes. But there was a problem: Wesley Clark also had no chance of winning the Democratic nomination.
Clark was an accomplished four-star general with war experience, not a career politician. That is what made him the ideal candidate to defeat Bush. Comparisons to Dwight Eisenhower, without a doubt the most bi-partisanly respected president of the 20th century, were exaggerations but not completely without merit. But even if not being a cunning, scheming, conniving power-fiend would endear him to the people, it doomed Clark’s campaign in the primaries.
He announced his candidacy in September of 2003, several months after the other Democratic candidates. He had no reason to do it earlier; the presidential power-trip wasn’t on Clark’s mind, and he only made his decision after carefully weighing his options. Seeing how entrenched Kerry and Dean were in Iowa, he opted to skip that primary; his funds were limited after all. But regardless of what Clark said or did, that late start was enough to doom him.
Other candidates had spent months raising money and were ready with their attacks by the time Clark entered the race. How bad did it get? Joe Lieberman (among others) actually dared to question Clark’s loyalty to the Democratic Party. You know, that same Lieberman who alone supports Bush’s war and now identifies as an independent.
So Wes Clark voted for Reagan. Might I remind you that everybody, from California to Massa-freakin-chusetts, voted for Reagan in 1984? The point is, this type of baseless mischaracterization should not have been so firmly entrenched by the time Clark entered the race. But because some candidates started their campaigns – oh, I don’t know – in the third grade, later arrivals stood no chance.
Sound familiar? It should.
Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Edwards are decent people who would be a whole lot better than Bush as president. But the unfathomably early start to this campaign is limiting our choices to only those candidates, and leaving potentially better candidates – Al Gore and Clark, among others – with a lot of ground to make up should they decide to enter.
The media may drown us in Hillary or Obama mania, but let’s not forget the other guys when they enter the race.
Only an idiot makes the same mistake twice in a row.
Imran Syed is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.