Clark helps Dems to hang tough on national security

Congressional Democrats turned to retired Gen. Wesley Clark yesterday to help them deliver a tougher message on national security as both parties continued their tussle over the issue in preparation for November’s midterm election.

Congressional Democrats turned to retired Gen. Wesley Clark yesterday to help them deliver a tougher message on national security as both parties continued their tussle over the issue in preparation for November’s midterm election.

Clark made his second appearance in as many weeks at a Democratic press conference on national security, joining party leaders from both chambers, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

As he did last week, Clark delivered a stark assessment of the Iraq war.

“There’s no end in sight for this war under this administration’s policy,” Clark said, asserting that Iraq has becoming a training ground for terrorists and that the war there has become a recruiting tool for them.

Democrats are trying to focus voters on what they say are the administration’s failures in Iraq, while Republicans highlight White House efforts to combat terrorism.

Democrats vowed again yesterday not to get “swift boated,” a reference to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the political group organized to discredit Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) military record during his 2004 bid for the presidency.

“We will not have someone define us,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.

“We are not questioning the patriotism of our political adversaries, and they should not question ours,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said.

Despite their rhetorical engagement, Democrats failed yesterday to amend a thick package of national security legislation onto a port-security bill under consideration by the Senate. The amendment was brushed aside on a largely party-line procedural vote, 41-57.

Democratic lawmakers and aides say Clark, a former supreme allied commander of NATO, was invited to recent events because he is one of their party’s strongest voices on military issues.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, called Clark “a bright guy.”

“He understands the limitations of military power,” Murtha said.

Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) argued that Clark is “not effective” for the Democrats.

“He’s just looking for camera time,” Bonjean said.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) noted that Clark has been helpful in recruiting Democratic candidates and raising money for them.

“He travels a lot for us,” Emanuel said.

Democrats say that effort might be important if Clark chooses to seek the presidency again in 2008.

“It helps more than it hurts,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), co-chairman of the House Democrats’ “Red to Blue” program, which is aimed at turning Republican “red” districts into Democratic “blue” districts.

“I think it’s helping him,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “People see you’re a team player.”

But aides noted that other Democratic luminaries, such as former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, 2004 presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, have freely given time and energy to the party’s effort to win control of one or both chambers of Congress.

Clark has not raised or distributed a significant amount of money to Democratic candidates in the 2006 election cycle, as some of the more prominent possible 2008 presidential candidates have. Clark’s total is less than $10,000.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) political action committee has doled out $248,000 this cycle, according to figures compiled by the fundraising tracker www.politicalmoneyline.com. Warner has given $577,000 to Democratic candidates, according to the site. Sen Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) has given more than $125,000 and Kerry and Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) have topped $80,000.

Clark and others may wait to see whether Clinton will run before deciding for themselves.

“It’s almost her nomination to lose,” Murtha said.

Clark, who failed to win the Democratic nomination in 2004, dodged a question about whether he will seek the presidency again in two years.

“I haven’t said I won’t,” he said. “We’re interested right now in getting the right people elected to Congress.”