I happened to be watching Face the Nation this weekend when Wes Clark said that “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.” Pretty gutsy stuff. Here’s a little more on how the conversation went (very much along the lines of what he’s been saying for a while now):
Underscoring during a national television appearance a position he has been expressing for several weeks, Clark said performing heroic military service is not a substitute for gaining command experience.
“In the matters of national security policy making, it’s a matter of understanding risk,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “It’s a matter of gauging your opponents and it’s a matter of being held accountable. John McCain’s never done any of that in his official positions. I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war.
“He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee and he has traveled all over the world, but he hasn’t held executive responsibility,” Clark said. “That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded – that wasn’t a wartime squadron.”
Moderator Bob Schieffer, who raised the issue by citing similar remarks Clark has made previously, noted that Obama hadn’t had those experiences nor had he ridden in a fighter plane and been shot down. “Well, I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president,” Clark replied.
In a March conference call with reporters while he was still backing Hillary Rodham Clinton, Clark said: “Everybody admires John McCain’s service as a fighter pilot, his courage as a prisoner of war. There’s no issue there. He’s a great man and an honorable man. But having served as a fighter pilot – and I know my experience as a company commander in Vietnam – that doesn’t prepare you to be commander in chief in terms of dealing with the national strategic issues that are involved. It may give you a feeling for what the troops are going through in the process, but it doesn’t give you the experience first hand of the national strategic issues.”
That’s tough stuff, and it’s brilliant politics, no? Wes Clark has all kinds of credibility on this issue, so he’s perfectly positioned to talk about it. John McCain’s biggest selling point is his alleged military expertise — what better way to throw a monkey wrench into his general election strategy than to have someone like Clark raise serious, legitimate questions about McCain’s qualifications.
Plus, everything Clark said is right.
So, given all that, WHAT THE HELL IS THIS??
“As he’s said many times before, Senator Obama honors and respects Senator McCain’s service, and of course he rejects yesterday’s statement by General Clark,” said Obama campaign spokeman Bill Burton.
Are you kidding me? Let us count the ways in which Obama’s “rejecting” what Clark said is a bad — indeed, potentially disastrous — move.
1. It throws under the bus one of Obama’s best vice-presidential prospects.
2. It makes it nearly impossible for Clark to continue aggressively questioning McCain’s qualifications — something that, up to now, he had done very effectively, and in a way that Obama himself cannot.
3. Perhaps worst of all, it’s very hard to interpret Obama’s move as other than a concession that being shot down and held prisoner does qualify McCain to be president. And yet, surely Clark is exactly right that McCain’s wartime experiences, as heroic and character-building as they were, did little to “prepare [him] to be commander in chief in terms of dealing with the national strategic issues that are involved.” If Obama is going to “reject” Clark’s comments along those lines, how can he later credibly argue that he, rather than McCain, would be the superior Commander in Chief?
Obama needs to work much harder to resist the temptation to try to rise above politics as usual at the cost of undercutting the rationale for his own candidacy. This was a big, big mistake.