Friday, February 1, 2008

Historical Perspective on Combat Experience in Modern Presidential Politics

Written and Updated by Ned Barnett
(c) 2008

This is an update of an article I wrote in 2004 to reflect on the importance of military experience in the election of American Presidents - written at a time when ex-Air Guard pilot Bush ran against Warrior and Anti-Warrior candidate Kerry. With McCain skyrocketing in the polls - in part because of his military service (including his stint as a POW), when none of his opponents have had any military experience (except for fringe candidate Ron Paul, who was a military physician) - this issue is going to emerge as relevant once again.

Combat Experience in Modern Presidential Politics

By Ned Barnett

© 2004

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 service and 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 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. Combat service clearly wasn't significant as a benefit for Ford.

Item: Nominal veteran Ronald Reagan (he was an actor-in-uniform, and 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: Combat Navy Pilot George H.W. Bush defeated 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: Bill Clinton admitted dodging the Vietnam draft, but in 1992 he still 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 Kerry (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 four years ago.

Item: George W. Bush's relatively anemic National Guard record, vs. the almost equally anemic service record of nominal Vietnam non-combat veteran Al Gore (he was a reporter for Stars & Stripes) 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. 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 has proved to be an attraction – seductive as an issue (to candidates who think they can exploit it), but ultimately Vietnam has always proved to be a fatal attraction for those who think they can 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 – and 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.

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