Military service re-emerges as campaign issue
Since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, a candidate's military service has seemed an issue of the past, one that intrigued the news media but not necessarily the voters, who in the past three presidential elections rejected war veterans in favor of candidates who managed to avoid combat at the height of the Vietnam War.
But perhaps for the first time since Dwight D. Eisenhower rode his World War II service into the Oval Office in 1952, candidates for the White House today must face the possibility that -- for an electorate scarred by terrorism and coming out of war in Afghanistan and Iraq -- military service has taken on a new relevancy.
Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, -- the only one of the nine Democratic presidential candidates with battlefield experience -- has made his military record a centerpiece of his campaign. President Bush put the issue of military leadership at front and center earlier this month with his showy landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln -- complete with flight suit emblazoned with "commander in chief." The dramatic images surrounding Bush's on-deck address to the troops that day made it abundantly clear that the president -- who spent the Vietnam War stateside in the Texas Air National Guard -- will flaunt his military leadership in his bid for re-election.
According to a Washington Post survey, 29 percent of Americans say that when considering a candidate for president, it is "extremely" or "very" important that the person has served in the military. Among Democrats, 31 percent say it's "extremely" or "very" important that the candidate has served in the military.
The value of a candidate's military service in the survey fell well behind such characteristics as "honesty" and "connecting with average Americans" -- traits that have resonated with voters for some time. Nonetheless, Democratic candidates are paying close attention to how Kerry's strategy and message will resonate in this post-Sept. 11 environment.
The day after Bush's speech, Kerry met with veterans in South Carolina and pointedly noted that his military experience makes him qualified to take on a wartime president.
"I don't have to sit in the Situation Room and be taught everything. ... I learned a lot on the front lines," he said.
In a later interview, Kerry was blunt about his strategy. "If the president is going to wear a flight suit on deck, I have one to match, so to speak," he said. "If we want to make those comparisons, I think it can become dangerous territory for them. If he can talk to the troops, I can talk to veterans. And my experience is a little more real."
Asked how his Vietnam experience makes him more qualified than his rivals, Kerry said, "I ask better questions (on national security). I know what I'm looking for. I have a better sense of consequences."
A review of military and selective service records for the other Democratic candidates showed that most of the contenders received the medical, marriage or student deferments common for the middle class of their generation. But today, as they face a fearful electorate, they all emphasize their national security experience. The first debate among Democratic candidates opened with posturing and sparring over who has been stronger on national security matters.
"I am sure you have heard me say that no candidate in 2004 will get elected who is not strong on defense," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, in an interview, reiterating his message during the debate. "I both admire and appreciate anyone who went to serve our country. It's a part of their life experience, just as the civil rights movement is part of mine," added Lieberman, who received deferments because he was a student, and then later when he became a father. "But the more relevant factor is what your experience has been as a public official in national security matters and what decisions you have made. I am the only candidate that supported both the Gulf War in '91 and this war against Saddam. It says a lot about whether you are willing to use American muscle to secure our values and protect our security."
Rep. Dick Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat who served in the Missouri Air National Guard, came out early in favor of using force in Iraq as necessary for the protection of the United States, and has steadfastly defended his support of Bush on the war. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who drew attention for his criticism of the war, goes on at length on his Web site about his experience with homeland security at the local level. Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat from Florida, has drawn on his experience as a former chairman of the Senate intelligence committee to oppose the war.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, also voted against using force in Iraq, and has been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration on the topic. But in a recent interview he noted that he is from a "family of military service," with his father and two siblings having served. He also said that he was "very disappointed" when he was classified as ineligible for military service because of a heart murmur. "We need to expand the definition of services to one's country," he said. "All service is honorable."
Earlier in the year, Republican pollster Frank Luntz conducted a focus group for MSNBC in New Hampshire among 20 Democrats and independents likely to vote in a Democratic primary. Luntz said that "Kerry started the evening well behind Lieberman," but that after the voters viewed video clips of all the Democratic presidential candidates speaking about national security, a shift occurred. The evening ended with the group favoring Kerry over Lieberman, 16 to 4.
"Kerry's discussion of the war was credible because of his background," Luntz concluded. "Military service enhances credibility. You don't think of someone as presidential when they are talking taxes. You do tend to think of them as presidential when they are talking about national security."
Kerry's promotion of his record has been particularly frustrating for other Democratic candidates, some of whom think he is overdoing it and believe their own careers in public service are somehow being diminished because they did not see active duty.
"You have to be careful how you play that card," said former senator Bob Dole, a Republican from Kansas and World War II veteran who lost the presidential election to Clinton in 1996. "People are going to know you're a veteran. You can't get up and pound your chest."
The issue has become so competitive that a whisper campaign is raising questions about how Dean (who is even with Kerry in New Hampshire polls) received a medical deferment at the height of the Vietnam War because of an unfused vertebrae -- but then went on to spend the year after his graduation from Yale skiing in Aspen.
Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, who believes the question is being circulated by one competitor, said of Dean, "His view is, 'Look, I went in, got a physical and was rejected, and then I went on with my life."'
Political experts generally agree that while having military experience can be an asset, not having it is not a liability.
Mike Murphy, an adviser to Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential bid, said the Arizona Republican's history as a POW during Vietnam was a source of curiosity and admiration in that race. But when it came down to it, Murphy said, people were far more interested in where McCain stood on issues that affected them, such as the economy and Social Security.
"It does help as a credential in the sense that it shows that the candidate has done something other than politics, that he has a breadth of experience," Murphy said. "But it's hardly a sole determinant."