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The politics of military service

It's just one factor that voters consider, history has shown. Even heroism is no guarantee.

September 10, 2008|Jill Zuckman | Chicago Tribune

Military service is perhaps the most powerful theme of John McCain's presidential campaign: Veterans sporting their caps and pins fill the audiences, running mate Sarah Palin cites McCain's prisoner-of-war years in introducing him, and during the recent Republican convention, men draped in medals and ribbons graced the stage while larger-than-life photos of McCain in uniform served as a backdrop.

But in presidential politics, military service -- even heroism -- is no guarantee of victory.

"It counts for something, but it doesn't seal the deal," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who helped get Bill Clinton elected in 1992 and is now backing Barack Obama. "It is a character credential, but you cannot run an entire campaign on it. Like everything else, you must build upon it and fill in the blanks."

Military service, rather, is one among an array of factors that voters consider. Clinton, who did not serve in the military, prevailed over three war heroes in twice winning the White House: Democrat Bob Kerrey during the 1992 primaries, Republicans George H.W. Bush in the 1992 general election, and Bob Dole in 1996.

This year's campaign presents a distinct contrast, pitting McCain -- a decorated Vietnam War hero from a military family who has two sons in the service -- against Obama, who has no military background, although he often mentions that his grandfather fought in World War II.

It's clear that McCain's service resonates with many voters, but it's not clear whether it will affect their votes.

In the 2004 campaign, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) contrasted his Vietnam experience as a decorated commander of a Swift boat that patrolled the Mekong Delta with President Bush's thin military resume. But Kerry's service turned out to provide a target for right-wing critics who questioned, in highly disputed ads, whether Kerry deserved his two Purple Hearts and Silver Star.

"By emphasizing his military credentials, he set himself up for the Swift boat attack," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. "If there's some credential you really want to put out front, it can serve as easily as a target as it can protection."

In Dole's 1996 campaign against Clinton, his World War II service in the 10th Mountain Division, his devastating injuries and his lengthy fight to regain the use of his withered limbs were at the heart of his pitch. His opponent had actively sought to avoid the draft. But Clinton won anyway.

Highlighting his military service "helped Dole a lot," said Scott Reed, who was Dole's campaign manager. "I think what hurt him was we were sailing into a strong economy and the country was at peace."

But do Americans care more about military credentials during times of war?

Americans have on occasion felt an affinity for military men, especially generals, as presidents. In 1952, after losing five elections in a row, Republicans nominated Dwight D. Eisenhower, the victorious general from World War II, who defeated Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson during a stalemated Korean War.

"For the first time, Americans were in battle and not immediately victorious," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University. "A huge part of Eisenhower's appeal was wrapped up in his military experience."

John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush were not generals, but their World War II heroics were an appealing chapter of their biographies.

The Iraq war, although not as prominent an issue as it was, remains one of voters' top concerns. Obama is proposing to bring troops home quickly and beef up the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. McCain proposed adding more troops to quell the violence in Iraq and says the United States should not leave without success.

In some ways, the candidates' positions have begun to haltingly converge, as McCain speaks more openly of bringing the troops home and Obama emphasizes that any withdrawal must recognize the conditions on the ground.

Obama and his surrogates frequently say they "honor" McCain's service, while going on to criticize his proposals. But one Obama advisor, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, said in June that "I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president."

Although Obama quickly disavowed Clark's comment, Republicans offered a reply at their convention through former Sen. Fred Thompson.

"Now, being a POW doesn't qualify anyone to be president, but it does reveal character," Thompson said. "My friends, this is the kind of character that civilizations from the beginning of our history have sought in their leaders."

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