Gen. Wesley Clark's entry into the 2004 Democratic presidential-nomination race will strengthen Democrats' ability to critique the Bush administration's national security policies. It may also raise the level of debate over the war on terrorism. And it may draw new attention to the Democrats' nominating contest, which has yet to seize the public imagination and is currently overshadowed by California's political drama.
President Bush's pursuit of the war on terrorism has raised several issues: What kind of military does the United States need to meet the threats of terrorism and the proliferation of dangerous weapons? Is the administration pursuing the right strategy? Does the US have enough troops to do the job? What's the best way to gain other countries' cooperation?
Several candidates have built their campaigns around opposition to the war in Iraq - Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, and most notably former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont. But General Clark, with his military background, brings credibility to his war opposition that others will find hard to match.
The Bush administration may be pursuing the right course. But even if it is, the election should provide a reality check - causing the president to dig deep to justify his policies before the voters ratify or reject them.
Up to now, Democrats' comments on the administration's national- security approach have been long on criticism and short on alternative solutions. It's to be hoped that Clark's entry into the race will cause all the candidates to be more specific about what they would do differently. It's all well and good to say that the US must bring more nations into the effort to rebuild Iraq - but just what would the Democrats do that the president isn't doing already? What would they do, for example, about France's demand for immediate Iraqi self-government?
Clark has set himself a tough challenge. He entered the race late. He must quickly build an organization and raise enough money to compete with heavyweights such as Governor Dean and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. He must develop and sell his positions on domestic issues.
The Rhodes scholar-West Pointer is a smart man. An Arkansas native, he's already collected a brain trust that includes many veterans of the Clinton White House. The Democratic race just got a lot more interesting. That's good for the country.