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.