February 19, 2006


They Served, and Now They're Running (JAMES DAO and ADAM NAGOURNEY, 2/18/06, NY Times)

[S]oldier-candidates are marching across the campaign field in numbers not seen in a half-century, many veterans of the Iraq, Afghan, Vietnam, Balkan and first gulf wars — nearly 100 candidates in all, not including a single incumbent.

Most are Democrats, but Republicans have come up with their own veterans as well. Many were recruited by their parties, but others decided to run on their own or were encouraged by left-leaning bloggers who think these candidates can help Democrats win back Congress. Some candidates are motivated by opposition to the Iraq war, but others are talking about health care, job creation or energy. [...]

In truth, despite all the Democratic emphasis on recruiting candidates with military experience, veterans may not be nearly the invincible candidates they once seemed to be. After all, attacking war heroes has been fair game: John Kerry's Vietnam record was attacked when he ran for president, and Max Cleland, a triple-amputee and Vietnam veteran, lost his Senate seat in Georgia in 2002 after Republicans accused him of being soft on national security. John McCain, when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, was accused of abandoning veterans. Many of the newest candidates are discovering that the political battlefield may be as challenging as the military one. [...]

For their part, Republicans are quick to note that nearly two-thirds of the veterans in Congress today are Republicans and that most districts where Democratic veterans are running voted for President Bush in 2004.

As for the notion that military experience might shore up the Democrats on defense, Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said: "That would be great if national security was a big issue in House races. But it's not. House races tend to be about pocketbook issues."

This wave of interest by veterans in politics has come at a time when the percentage of veterans in Congress has hit its lowest point in the post-World War II era. Only 26 percent of the members can claim military experience, down from a high of 77 percent in the 95th Congress of 1977 and 1978, according to statistics compiled by the Military Officers Association of America, a nonprofit group.

Yet even as fewer Americans can claim military experience, respect for the military has grown. After hitting a low point during and after the Vietnam War, the military has come to be seen as one of the most trusted and respected institutions in the country, polls show.

Burdett A. Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who has written about the first Congressional class elected after Vietnam, said Americans' attitudes toward returning veterans today was strikingly different from those in the 1960's and 1970's, when many veterans were all but branded war criminals. That, in turn, may have discouraged returning veterans from running for Congress, he said.

But today, he said, "Even the most severe critic of this war will say he isn't criticizing the troops."

For that reason, experts say it makes complete sense for both parties to look to the ranks of the military for candidates.

And it makes particular sense for Democrats, because of lingering concerns among voters that they are brittle on national defense issues. The image of Michael Dukakis wearing a helmet and riding sheepishly in a tank during the 1988 presidential campaign still burns.

But after John Kerry's loss in 2004, some Democratic strategists have given up on the idea that a candidate's military experience alone would even the playing field on the issue of national security.

Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who started the year aggressively recruiting veterans, said that a candidate who had worn a uniform was not enough.

"It's a credential to talk about," Mr. Emanuel said. "But you've got to have more than that."

In fact, Democrats appear to have made an mistake typical of their party over the last four decades, recruiting soldiers only because they think their past service gives them cover to be anti-war. Instead they just end up with guys who blend into the general unseriousness of the party on national security issues but sound especially bitter doing so. America doesn't vote bitter.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 19, 2006 9:14 AM

Hanoi John was a veteran the way General Arnold, the hero of Saratoga, was a veteran.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 19, 2006 9:49 AM

It's just a part of the Dems general contempt for the voters outside their strongholds: they think we're so stupid that we'll vote Dem just because a guy served for a couple years, got his "Cambodian incursions" material and then got out at the first opportunity. That military service'll excuse whatever other stupid things they guys will say (Hackett in Ohio) or bad policies they espouse ( the '004 Kerry campaign) What they don't realize is that military service is more of a tie breaker to be used between two otherwise equal candidates. Which is why what works for a McCain in a Presidential primary won't work quite as well with some Logisticts Specialist 2nd Class running in East Hogsnout, Arkansas.

And so what the Dems have got lots of cannon fodder for the '006 campaign. How many of these are going to do just the same as every other Kos endorsed candidate? Third in a field of three seems to be the usual outcome.

(And let's not forget that Seattle's Finest:,"Baghdad Jim" McDermott is a vet, survivor of the grueling Long Beach Psychiatric Campaign.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at February 19, 2006 12:45 PM