Three days in, and the outrage machine still churns over Wesley Clark’s clumsy comments last Sunday. (For those who have not yet viewed the TPM gag reel of cable news hyperventilation, click here.) The conservative editorial page of the New York Post weighs in today, alleging in rather broad strokes a concerted, unapologetic Obama surrogate effort to sully McCain’s military record. As I have written before, I don’t think there is enough evidence to say this so-called smear campaign is real, though we are still early in the general election.
The more concerning fact, it seems to me, is that the backlash against Clark’s “inartful” comments could be used to take legitimate issues off the table. If you recall, the substantive critique that Clark was delivering Sunday concerned whether or not McCain had the executive leadership chops to be president. Given that we now have two candidates who both lack significant executive experience, this is one of the central issues facing voters. And we should all take the issue of executive ability seriously. It is not off limits.
McCain has had significant leadership roles on Senate committees, and he has played a major role organizing support in legislative battles, from the failed tobacco bill of the late 1990s to the successful campaign finance reform effort years later. He also led a Naval fighter wing after his return from Vietnam. (On this point, I don’t buy Clark’s argument Sunday that McCain’s fighter wing leadership is somehow less valuable because he never led the unit into battle. Soldiers, sailors and airmen either serve with distinction or they don’t. The fact that they serve in peacetime should not be a mark against them.)
Similarly, Obama’s executive experience is rather limited for a presidential candidate. He did community organizing, served as a professor of law, spent time in the Illinois state senate, and then several years in the United States Capitol as a junior senator. By far the biggest operation Obama has ever had to run has been his own campaign, and by almost every account he has done a spectacular job, consistently outmaneuvering the vaunted Clinton machine. By the same measurement, McCain has struggled mightily to lead his own campaign. Never mind the McCain campaign’s implosion last summer. It is hard to find many Washington Republicans, much less Democrats, who think McCain is currently running a top-notch operation.
So let’s talk about executive experience. Let’s even talk about McCain’s experience in the military as it pertains to his qualifications as president. (Lifelong service to country, which is the core of McCain’s identity, is a perfectly legitimate qualification for the White House, though it does not prove executive ability.) But let’s also be sensitive not to appear to belittle (intentionally or inadvertently) the sacrifice of those who serve our country. And most importantly, let’s not let the outrageously outraged response of partisan outrage brokers keep an important issue out of the public debate.
Along the same lines, it is legitimate to look at how McCain’s time in the military, and his service in Vietnam, informs his approach to foreign policy. This was the idea that Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was trying to raise when he inartfully suggested that the perspective that results from McCain’s military upbringing and experience can be “pretty dangerous.” Harkin’s phrasing was poor, but the underlying point is not out of bounds. Both Matt Bai at the New York Times and Mark Benjamin at Salon had done good pieces examining the influence of Vietnam on McCain’s policies. See them here and here.