How much does military service count?

How much does military service count?


    What is the impact of a nominee for POTUS having worn the uniform?

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.

    Neither is the stated policy of the United States Marine Corps.”

During the final stages of the primary season, when McCain was already the presumptive nominee but Clinton and Obama were still fighting their way to the Democratic nomination, I commented that the three candidates were all suited to different variants of the job. Rather glibly, I suggested that I thought Hillary Clinton was running for the policy-driven role of Head of Government, McCain was explicitly running for Commander-in-Chief, and Barack Obama was running for the emblematic nation-embodying position of Head of State.

I mentioned this to an American friend, and expressed a view that I though America might well choose a military hero and war-room greybeard to act as Commander-in-Chief whilst US forces were still fighting two full-scale wars. It seemed to me that in times of armed conflict, more than in times of peace and prosperity, that voters would seek a Commander-in-Chief more than a President of the United States. In my mind, that significantly favoured McCain.

The parallels between this contest, and the final season of ‘The West Wing’ have been noted many times, both on this blog and on many others. The character inspired by Obama’s 2004 speech, Congressman Matt Santos, is a Latino running against the Democratic Party machine candidate, whom he beats to set up a run-off against a South-Western moderate (and maverick) Republican. And yet one key difference strikes me each time I re-watch the programme – Matt Santos is a former Marine, and thus has an edge over the Republican who never served. The question that cries out to be asked every time I catch an old episode or three on DVD is “Would Obama be a better candidate if he had served in the US Military?”.

America’s love and support of its military is well-known – few other democratic countries idolise this form of service to the same degree. There is no greater treason than for a politician to fail to acknowledge men and women in uniform, and fewer more powerful pillars of a political resume than an active tour of duty. Congressional and Senatorial candidates have long acceded to high-office, largely thanks to their having previously volunteered to fight for their country. Again, I could not help but see that in spite of all Obama’s brilliance, that McCain – a seasoned war-hero, who distinguished himself by refusing early release from torturous PoW status in Vietnam – might hold the trump card that would keep the White House for the GOP.

Then I was pulled up by some facts. In the past four Presidential elections, the candidate who had served in the US military had been beaten by a candidate who had never done so. George W Bush’s military record, or lack thereof, is well-known – he beat Vice President Al Gore (who voluteered for Vietnam, though served only a few months) and decorated war hero John Kerry. Before Bush, Bill Clinton famously had no record of service – he beat George HW Bush (the youngest man to fly US naval planes in WWII) and Bob Dole (also a decorated WWII hero).

If we look prior to 1992, GHW Bush’s victory over Dukakis (who served ‘only’ two years in Korea), and Nixon’s win over Humphrey (who was twice rejected for active service on health grounds) are notable for having been the only occasions since the Eisenhower Administration that the candidate with the most military experience has been victorious in a Presidential election. Reagan beat both Carter and Mondale (both were ex-military), Carter had served though not to the same degree as his vanquished opponent Ford, Johnson’s ‘undeserved’ Silver Star was little compared to Goldwater’s record in the USAF, and Kennedy’s record was certainly no more impressive than Nixon’s. In fact, of the 26 Presidential elections since William McKinley beat William Jennings Bryan in 1900, only five have gone to the candidate with significantly more experience in the military than their opponent (Truman in 1948, Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, Nixon in 1968 and GHW Bush in 1988).

Yet after FDR, it is noticeable that the vast majority of candidates for President had at least some experience of the military institution which they hoped to lead. Military success was clearly an important consideration in choosing a President to a post WWII generation, where service was more common amongst the middle classes (thanks to larger-scale conflicts in Korea and the draft in Vietnam) and war was much closer to the public consciousness. What has changed?

Well, a combination of factors: the generation that fought WWII and Korea are fewer in number now – the US population of the third-age are now as likely to have been draft-dodgers as to have won purple hearts in Vietnam or Korea. Public opposition to American wars has rocketed since the advent of television, and the composition of the military has changed too. Seeing TV coverage of bodies arriving at Dover Air Force base has taken a shocking toll on recruitment. The US Army now attracts new recruits largely through the prospect of paying for their education under variants of the GI Bill. As a result, the background of those in the US military has changed. Over 25% are African-American, and there are far fewer middle-class recruits than in previous generations. Infantry units are increasingly drawn from poorer areas, and the absence of a draft has meant a decline in the numbers volunteering from more financially-secure backgrounds. For all the overt and genuine support of the troops, middle America is perhaps becoming more removed from the day-to-day life of the military than it was through the 50s and 60s, and perhaps does not accept that only military service (no longer part of the normal professional career path) validates a candidate for President who they recognise as being much like them, and that they want to support.

A Wall Street Journal article yesterday suggested that Obama might be ‘too fit’ to attract voters in a country plagued by obesity – although largely intended to be amusing, there is a question as to how ‘brilliant’ voters want their candidate to be. If you are from a generation that spent more time at Woodstock than Hanoi, are you really prepared to accept that John McCain’s military background is the key qualification? Might those voters who are not part of the ever-more-marginal demographic that are targetted by military recruiters, secretly resent the plaudits handed down to politicians who once wore the uniform? There is always a danger that a candidate’s strength might become a negative in the eyes of the voters – most awkward if that is an insecurity or inferiority complex that would not dare speak its name in public.

So whilst I think Barack Obama would be a better candidate, and arguably a better Commander-in-Chief, if he had spent some time in the Marines, I don’t think that John McCain’s military service is necessarily the silver bullet that swings him an election in times of war. In fact, if the trends of the last few decades continue, it may actually see him on the losing side of this particular contest.


In other news:

Senator Ted Steven (R-AK) was already trailing Mayor Mark Begich by 9%, before he was indicted by a Grand Jury on seven counts of falsely reporting gifts (including much of his home, and $250,000 in other goods). He may pull out, even after the Alaskan primaries in late August, but the other Republicans are shown to trail Begich by even greater margins. With her own scandal over the firing of her ex-brother-in-law, Governor Sarah Palin will not be contesting this seat, which is now a very likely Democratic gain.

Governor Christine Gregoire (D-WA) is already struggling with approval ratings in her close re-match against Dino Rossi. Now she is struggling in the face recognition stakes as well. thelondonpaper reported last night that she was asked to leave a bar because she had no proof of age. The Governor is 61 years young.

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