Friday, February 22, 2008

Campaign History Watch - Combat Record and Presidential Candidates - A Surprising Non-Issue

By Ned Barnett
© 2008

This is an update of a blog-article I wrote in 2004, talking about the remarkable fact that honorable war service has - for the past 50 years - had no measurable and positive impact on who's elected President. Because it now looks like Republican war veteran John McCain will be going up against one of two non-veterans - Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama - and lots of Republicans are pinning their hopes on McCain because we're at war and because McCain has combat experience.

Unless there's a major terror incident shortly before the election - an al Qaeda "October Surprise," my analysis of the last 12 Presidential elections suggests that McCain's military service will not give him a decisive advantage. If he wants to win, he'll have to find a compelling reason other than his military service to justify his candidacy.

With a few edits, here's the analysis from 2004, updated as appropriate:


I just heard this unanswerable question on Matt Drudge's talk radio program that got me thinking about the role of prior military service on a Presidential candidate's electability – and what I realized is surprising. Since 1960, honorable military service has had no positive impact on Presidential electability.

Surprised? Me too.

Here's the question:

"Who was the genius who sold Kerry on the idea of talking about Vietnam in 2004?"

As a frequent "historical expert" (their term, not mine) on the History Channel, I decided to take a historical perspective view of that question – you might be surprised to find out what the answer was – I certainly was.

Since Ike defeated Stevenson in 1952, there has been no obvious link between honorable military service in time of war and Presidential electability – and since 1968, Vietnam has been a deadly "third rail." Nobody who tried to make the war a big issue has won the Presidency.

Item: Navy veteran John Kennedy beat Navy veteran Dick Nixon in '60 – but both served, and although Kennedy's was far more dramatic, their service was not a decisive issue in the election.

Item: Navy one-mission (as an observer on a milk run) "veteran" Lyndon Johnson beat Air Force General Barry Goldwater – and even this early, the issue was Vietnam, and Goldwater (who wanted to either get out or capital-W "win") lost on his perceived stance on Vietnam.

Item: None of the several prominent Democratic anti-war candidates in 1968 could even get nominated. The election in November was won by nominal (not particularly a hairy-chested combat vet) veteran Richard Nixon, who defeated non-veteran Hubert Humphrey. In that election, the decisive issue wasn't war service, but Humphrey's defense of the Johnson failed Vietnam war policy.

Item: Nominal Navy veteran Nixon easily beat legitimate combat-pilot war hero George McGovern, over McGovern's strong anti-Vietnam war stance – once again, Vietnam proved to be a deadly "third rail" for those who made an issue of it.

Item: Decorated Navy combat veteran Gerald Ford lost to former post-war Naval officer Jimmy Carter, who was an Annapolis Midshipman during the war. Combat service clearly wasn't significant as a benefit for Ford.

Item: Nominal veteran Ronald Reagan (he was an actor-in-uniform, and even he didn't consider that "real" military service) easily defeated Naval Academy graduate Jimmy Carter.

Item: Nominal veteran Ronald Reagan defeated post-war Army corporal Walter Mondale.

Item: Decorated Navy Combat Pilot George H.W. Bush defeated veteran Mike Dukakis, who served in the Army and was stationed in Korea after that war – both served honorably, and the varied nature of their service was not an important political issue.

Item: Admitted Vietnam-era draft dodger Bill Clinton handily beat decorated combat pilot George H.W. Bush – avoiding Vietnam was not a dominant negative issue for Clinton, though Bush tried to make it so.

Item: Bob Dole has a crippling war wound, earned in heroic service against the Nazis, and he couldn't get to first base against admitted Vietnam draft dodger Bill Clinton. Again, dodging Vietnam was not seen as a liability, though Dole tried to make it so.

Item: The Other Kerrey (Senator Bob Kerrey) won a Medal of Honor in Vietnam – where he lost a leg – yet he was a non-starter in the Presidential sweepstakes in 2000 - losing out, ultimately, to another Vietnam vet who had a far more questionable service record, and who later made his mark by lying before Congress about American atrocities in that war.

Item: George W. Bush's relatively anemic National Guard record as a fighter pilot, vs. the almost equally anemic service record of nominal Vietnam non-combat veteran Al Gore (he was a reporter for Stars & Stripes, and was released early to go to Divinity School that he quickly flunked out of) was a non-starting issue in 2000. Gore tried to make Bush's Guard service an issue, but it didn't prove decisive.

Item: A more recent election was not Presidential, but it’s still related. Triple amputee Max Cleland, after a long and honorable career in the Senate, was voted out of office in 2002. Georgia’s voters realized that his many years of voting in the Senate (badly, apparently, from conservative Georgian's perspectives) trumped his unquestioned heroism in Vietnam - and although his wounds were accidentally self-inflicted, his other service was clearly heroic. That voting record also trumped his unquestioned sacrifice (his horrendous wound). As Dole had learned before him, honorable wounds – even visible wounds – do not make a winning election issue.

Here's the bottom line. History has shown that Vietnam is a third rail in Presidential politics, and has been since 1964. Time and time and time again, Vietnam service - or opposition to Vietnam - has proved to be an attraction position that didn't work. This was seductive as an issue, especially to candidates who think they can exploit it, but ultimately Vietnam has always proved to be a fatal attraction for those who thought they could exploit it. Candidates who tried to make Vietnam, including opposition to – or service in – Vietnam, an issue ALL failed.

Beyond that, history has shown that heroic service – even heroic wounds – are not significant assets in Presidential elections.


Which brings us to this 2004 election. Given all those facts above, let's consider that provocative question again:

"Who was the genius who sold Kerry on the idea of talking about Vietnam in 2004?"

Who's "bright idea" was it to bet the farm, in 2004, on making a 35-year old war one of (if not the) major issues in this campaign?

Especially when Kerry's combat record has been controversial at least since 1971, when he lied to Congress about non-existent atrocities supposedly committed by American combat troopers.

As a historian, and as a long-time political campaign speechwriter, media handler and strategist, I have got to ask, "what were they thinking?"


2008 Postscript:

John McCain is the only military veteran in the 2008 Presidential election. Many think that - during a war against terrorism - this will help him win. History suggests that they are wrong. For McCain to defeat his Democratic opponent, he will have to find a rationale for his Presidency that doesn't include his honorable service or his very real sacrifices as a POW. Historically, these just don't matter.

Remember, you heard it here first.