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Clark’s ‘Journey‘ Must Include Democratic Refresher Course

Football season is here, but last weekend I found myself watching the rerun of last week’s Democratic presidential debate in New York. The debate reminded me of an old saying: “A new broom sweeps clean, but an old brush knows the corners.” Without civil rights advocate Al Sharpton’s wit in welcoming retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the newly announced Democrat and presidential candidate would have been swept under the rug by his more experienced rivals.

[IMGCAP(1)] You have to give it to Sharpton, who had one of the best lines of the night on Clark: “It’s better to be a new Democrat that’s a real Democrat, than a lot of old Democrats up here that have been acting like Republicans all along.”

NBC anchor Brian Williams’ initial question regarding Clark’s Democratic credentials was in order, but the response needed some work.

Williams simply asked Clark to respond to questions surrounding his appearance at the May 11, 2001, Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner in Arkansas. Yep, an old fashioned GOP fundraiser in former President Bill Clinton’s old backyard. At the dinner, the general was quoted as praising the leadership of President Bush and his team. Clark also bragged of his support of former President Ronald Reagan.

With a demeanor that many have come to like, the general told the viewers of the debate with a straight face that “it’s been an incredible journey for me and for this country since early 2001.” But as Clark prepares to visit Capitol Hill today, he needs to tell how a self-proclaimed “pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment, pro-health” and new card-carrying Democrat made this conversion. We need testimony — complete with chapter and verse.

Perhaps some of the answers can be found in Clark’s remarks this weekend on the stump in New Hampshire.

Again, responding to questions about his party affiliation, Clark said, “So when I got out of the military and into business, I looked at both parties.” Apparently, at the time, he chose to give his time and service to the Arkansas Republican Party. Fair enough.

I had to read the transcripts of the Arkansas GOP event to understand the essence of his journey. Clark told the audience that he was “glad we’ve got a great team in office, men like Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice [general, she’s a woman] … people I know very well — our President George W. Bush. We need them there.”

Any card-carrying Democrat would have known better and would have challenged Clark’s assertion that Bush had put a “great team in office.”

Democrats would have reminded Clark, as his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination certainly will do, that while he was praising Bush and his team, Democrats were criticizing them for abandoning the Kyoto treaty, setting back years of progress on global warming. They will remind Clark that on Bush’s third day in office, the president signed an executive order overturning the Clinton administration on the global gag rule, thereby denying U.S. funds to overseas family planning organizations that offer abortion counseling. They will remind him that Bush’s team proposed rolling back ergonomics standards and suspended the rule to protect public land from the toxic waste of mining companies.

Now, it’s Clark’s turn to tell Democrats and others whether we still need this team in place. As a new Democrat, Clark’s responses to these questions should enable other independent-minded voters to break from the disastrous and reckless fiscal, environmental and economic policies of the GOP.

The general can begin this new journey by taking a firm stand on the Bush administration’s attempt to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and by proposing to repeal or postpone some of the administration’s tax cuts to pay for the war on terrorism and rebuilding Iraq. Clark can also talk about his plans to create jobs and support small businesses.

By the time Clark appeared at the Republican Party fundraiser, more than 200,000 Americans had lost their jobs. Today the loss is greater than 3 million and counting. Every last one of those unemployed workers and their families need a new president and a team that will fight for them.

Based on what I know about Clark, he’s ready for political combat. But this highly decorated military officer must prove he understands that in every case — from reproductive rights to civil rights — Democrats have been waging a tough battle to prevent the GOP-controlled Congress from rolling back our basic freedoms. As Clark, speaking about the journey of declaring his party affiliation, said of the Republican Party this weekend, “They put their party interest over the interest of the country.”

Clark is right to join the Democratic Party and to challenge others to make this journey with him. I know first-hand that many Americans are excited about his candidacy.

On MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” last week, I raised a question about Clark’s presidential preference in 2000, and I was amazed at the number of e-mails I received to set the record straight. Clark voted for former Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

But let me remind the general and his die-hard supporters: There are a lot of voters who can be swept up by the momentum of this new political season. However, to win the Democratic nomination and the White House, Clark must brush up on some of the major political battles of the past three years. By doing so, he can vacuum up the large number of undecided voters still sitting in the corners.

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