It has been a hectic last week on the campaign trail. The nationwide buzz from the highly publicized "United Front" demonstrated by Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama proved short-lived, knocked off the perch by Retired Army General Wesley Clark's (above) comments about Senator John McCain's military service over the weekend on CBS' Face the Nation. When host Bob Schieffer raised the issue of Obama's lack of military service, Clark said, "Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president."
Clark clarified his remarks the following day on Good Morning America: "As a retired serviceman, someone who came home from Vietnam on a stretcher, someone who spent 38 years in uniform, someone who’s worked his way up through the ranks of the United States Armed Forces, I would never discredit anyone who chose to wear the uniform. I fully respect John McCain and his service, and I’ve said so repeatedly. My point is that there’s a difference in preparing yourself for the highest office in the land. … John McCain as a young officer demonstrated courage and character. But the service as president is about judgment. And the experience that he had as a fighter pilot isn’t the same as having been at the highest levels of the military."
On Monday, the day after Clark's comments caused so much commotion from coast to coast, Obama apparently thought the time was right to deliver a speech on patriotism, in which he emphasized his deep love of America. "Throughout my life, I have always taken my deep and abiding love for this country as a given. It was how I was raised. It was what propelled me into public service. It is why I am running for president. And yet at times over the last 16 months, my patriotism has been challenged -- at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears about who I am and what I stand for."
The McCain campaign, meantime, has been denouncing Clark and insisting that if Obama really respected McCain's service to his nation and the five and a half years he spent as a POW in North Vietnam, then Obama would cut all ties to Clark.
It would be a foolish move for Obama to cut ties to Clark. Instead, Obama did the wise thing by re-stating his commitment to patriotism. The man has his finger on the pulse of the nation. He understands that there are a number of people across the nation who question his love of America, especially white, working-class voters. And Obama's speech recast patriotism as more than just a connection to a particular country or people, but also a love of ideals. As Obama put it: "That is why for me, patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. Instead, it's also loyalty to America's ideals, ideals for which anyone can sacrifice, or defend, or give their last full measure of devotion."
The controversy caused by Clark's remarks will soon pass. Liberal Bloggers have been rejoicing that a high-level Democrat finally had the courage to question McCain's insistence that his military service helps qualify him for the presidency. But -- as well-intentioned liberals often do -- they're missing the bigger picture. The Vietnam War was a catastrophe that laid waste to much of Southeast Asia, leaving millions dead and the landscape scarred by defoliants and bomb craters. But we don't need another debate on Vietnam in this campaign, because -- as was the case with the Swift Boat Smears in 2004 -- such debates are counterproductive and always focus on the wrong issues. Obama needs to keep discussing the economy, the Iraq War (which is slowly bleeding to death another nation in a different part of the world) and the declining quality of life for ordinary Americans after eight years of George W. Bush. For too long, Republicans have been dictating the terms of political debates. It is time for Obama to set the rules, to call the shots, and to determine which issues are of utmost importance. Let historians debate the 1960s and the Vietnam War. Obama needs to get into the White House. He needs Wesley Clark to get there. And he needs to keep hammering today's -- not yesterday's -- issues home.