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A Presidential Election Without Veterans

Back in May, I took note of the fact that 2012 would make the first year since 1944 that neither of the major party Presidential candidates had served in the military. With the selection of Mitt Romney’s running mate now complete, Jeff Quinton points out that this will be the first year since 1932 when neither major party ticket had a veteran on it. This isn’t just a phenomenon in Presidential politics, it exists in politics all around. There are now far fewer veterans in Congress than there were even 20 or 30 years ago, and certainly far fewer than there were in the decades immediately after World War II. The same is likely true in state legislatures and various other lower levels of politics where it used to be common that the men who had returned from service would end up serving their community in some kind of leadership role. Two years ago, James Joyner pointed out that, with Elena Kagan replacing John Paul Stevens, there are now no veterans on the Supreme Court. In 2008, there were three Republicans with military service experience running for President, John McCain, Ron Paul, and former Congressman Duncan Hunter. None of the Democrats running in 2008 had military service experience. In 2012, only two Republicans had such experience, Ron Paul and Rick Perry.

Bridget Johnson at PJ Media posits that the relatively lack of candidates with military experience is a reflection of voter priorities:

One might draw a correlation between the lack of military representation among nominees and voters’ feeling on military and foreign policy. Gallup polling has steadily shown just one percent of voters this election cycle ranking foreign policy as a key issue at the ballot box, with similarly low or even just trace concern for war, weaker military defense, or national security.

The campaign trail seems to reflect this as well, as the looming defense sequestration that will ax nearly $500 billion from the military has been a topic reserved for impassioned lawmakers in affected districts instead of a priority for the national candidates.

The trend also may indicate that voters don’t think military service is a prerequisite to fully comprehending and executing the role of commander in chief.

Jazz Shaw makes this observation in discussing Johnson’s argument:

It’s not that we’re not still at war (Afghanistan) or living under the looming shadow of other potential military engagements (Syria, Iran and other troubled spots). But that’s just not where the focus seems to be. As Johnson notes in the same article, public polling in 2012 has consistently shown foreign policy and war to be near the very bottom of the list of concerns cited by likely voters. Americans seem to be looking for a warrior who is ready to win the battle of the budget rather than the Battle of the Bulge.

There’s no doubt that voter priorities have shifted toward the economy, not just this year but in pretty much every election since the Cold War was no longer an issue. Even during the Cold War, though, I’d argue that domestic concerns were already the voters primary concern and the fact that, at least until the 70s, the parties basically had the same ideas about how to deal with the Soviet Union, meant that there was very little to differentiate on when it came to national security. More important than voter priorities, though, I think the real reason for the decline in veterans in politics at the Presidential level and below is, as I noted in May, a simple matter of demographics:

To some degree, the long stretch of time from 1944 to 2008 when at least one candidate had served in uniform is actually something of an historical anomaly. If you go through a list of major party Presidential candidates throughout American history, you find that very few Presidents or losing nominees had any military experience at all. This is, I think, largely a reflection of the fact that the 20th Century saw America involved in two World Wars, the Cold war, Korea, and Vietnam and that during a large part of this period there was a military draft in place that increased the odds that a given person would end up in military service at some point along the way. Now, though, we’re coming to the point where candidates who were born at the tail end of the Vietnam Era are now the men (and women) running for the Presidency. For the most part, they were born too late to be subject to the draft and have grown up in the era of the all-volunteer military. Therefore, one could argue that we are returning to some sense of normalcy in terms of the way things were prior to the end of World War II when military service was not commonly found on the resume of a Presidential candidate.

Indeed, the involvement of large numbers of veterans in politics has usually coincided with large scale conflicts that resulted in the many men serving, usually via a draft. For decades after the Civil War, American politics was dominated by veterans of a conflict that, by its end, had more than three million men under arms in the Union and Confederate Armed Forces combined. As noted above, the same thing happened after the two World Wars and was extended in time largely by the fact that the draft remained in effect for some 27 years after World War II ended. In an era of a much smaller military made up of volunteers, many of whom spend far longer in uniform than draftees did, it’s inevitable that there are going to be fewer people with military experience entering politics regardless of what voter priorities might be.

In his piece at Hot Air, Jazz goes on to ask if we’re losing something by not having as many veterans in politics. As I noted in May, though, I’m not entirely convinced that military service by itself gives a candidate, for President or any other office, any special insight that would make them to superior to another candidate. The example I used then was Bob Dole and Bill Clinton in 1996. We all know that Bill Clinton didn’t serve in the military, and his story in that regard up is tied up in the still emotionally charged issue of Vietnam era draft deferments (which both Mitt Romney and Joe Biden took advantage of, by the way). Bob Dole, on the other hand, served in World War II where he was badly injured in battle in Italy, earning two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. That valor notwithstanding, I don’t think there’s any question that Bob Dole would have made a worse President in Bill Clinton in the mid-90s, and I say that as someone who was not very much of a Bill Clinton fan during his time in office. Similarly, John McCain’s service to his country is beyond question, but I would submit that he’s demonstrated more than once over the years that he does not have the judgment and temperament necessary to make a good President. Finally, I think Rick Perry demonstrated during the primary campaign that he didn’t have what it takes to be President not withstanding his military experience.

In any case, purely because of historical accident and demographics, we are likely entering an era where veterans on a Presidential ticket are going to become more of a rarity. Personally, I view that as more of a curiosity than a loss of anything.

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    I’m 66 and was one of the last people drafted.

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  2. @Ron Beasley:

    Romney is 65 and Biden is 69, it’s no wonder they were the only ones on the tickets with even the chance of being drafted.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. PJ says:

    Personally, I would like to have more people holding a PhD in Congress, currently only about 4% do.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. Just Me says:

    I think it is hard to ignore the place of the draft in the 20th century.

    There were multiple conflicts where men either volunteered or were drafted. I think in the late 20th century service mattered to some degree, because people looked somewhat skeptically on men who avoided he draft and service in any of those wars and even then a candidate who says and does the right things can overcome the skepticism. Both Clinton and Bush 43 (who served but avoided Vietnam) were able to overcome skepticism.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  5. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @PJ: People with Ph.Ds tend to be very, very specialized in their knowledge, and that often doesn’t translate into general terms. Witness Secretary Chu, for example. I’d be more comfortable with generalists.

    Oh, and fewer lawyers. Many fewer lawyers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  6. @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Maybe you just can’t keep up with Dr. Chu.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  7. David M says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: It would be really unfortunate if there were people in Congress with actual knowledge and expertise in their fields.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  8. al-Ameda says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Oh, and fewer lawyers. Many fewer lawyers.

    i

    Case for fewer lawyers:

    Michelle Bachmann, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell

    Case against fewer lawyers:

    Sarah Palin, Allen West, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  9. Clanton says:

    @Ron Beasley: I don’t remember when the draft ended, but I do remember the “draft lottery”: my number was 342. Nixon was the president, with just months left before he was gone, and Vietnam was winding down very quickly.

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  10. Woody says:

    Demographics FTW – but I believe it goes beyond the 20th century wars.

    It might be a surprise (it was to me, anyway) for some to discover that the upper-income (top 40%) households provide more of our military personnel than the lower-income households. This makes sense, as the military has strengthened their educational requirements, and children from the upper 40% are far more likely to have graduated high school.

    I would personally prefer our leadership to have had some experience in the military, as I believe the decisions concerning war are among the most profoundly moral decisions a President can make. Though experience by itself does not grant wisdom, it at least provides some perspective.

    I might also add that the military is one of the few remaining institutions where Americans actually interact with Americans from different backgrounds. We wall ourselves off from each other at our peril.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  11. Tano says:

    Actually, I do believe that one of the candidates has served four years as Commander-in Chief.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 4

  12. JKB says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    From Tips My Dad Says: (makezine.com)

    “My father (a lawyer) told me, “Company culture is driven from the top – if it’s the people who make the product, you’re good; sell the product, you’re ok; if the accountants take over, look for another job; and if the lawyers take over, run as fast as you can!” – Alden Hart

    Ah, the worship of Ph.Ds, trained beyond commonsense but well credentialed. A Ph.D. does not preclude success in politics but it certainly doesn’t commend it. Add in the modern Humanities Ph.D. so specialized and so bereft of the depth of the classical humanities student. The exception, of course, being the widely read academic who avoid the specialization required for the modern Ph.D.

    Perhaps a Ph.D. could add value to Congress but without some work experience outside the cloistered world of academia or government-funded non-profit, it is unlikely they would be aware enough of the rough and tumble of the real world to function as an effective executive.

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  13. JKB says:

    @Tano:

    C-in-C is a job but it is not military experience.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  14. Tano says:

    @JKB:

    The exception, of course, being the widely read academic who avoid the specialization required for the modern Ph.D.

    I think that is pretty off-base. One certainly needs to specialize in order to get a PhD, but that is no different than specializing in any field in order to accomplish anything. No one is compelled to remain in that narrowly-drawn specialization beyond the degree (i.e. in your actual career), and it is only the process of working through a specialized project that one learns the lessons that are then applied to a wide field of issues over the rest of your career.

    it is unlikely they would be aware enough of the rough and tumble of the real world to function as an effective executive.

    Emerging unscathed and triumphant from the field of academic politics takes LBJ-like political skill.

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  15. @Tano:

    We’re obviously talking here about active duty uniformed military

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  16. bk says:

    Can you imagine if it was a Democratic candidate for President, who hadn’t served, who chose as his VP candidate someone who hadn’t served, and announced it on a decommissioned battleship? Let alone a VP candidate who had spent all of his career working for the government. On a battleship that was financed by the government. All of the heads on Fox News would be exploding. But, as they say – IOKIYAAR.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  17. rudderpedals says:

    @bk:

    a battleship financed by the government.

    A battleship also built by the government in the Philadelphia Navy yard. By American workers making decent wages. All no longer fit for purpose thanks to the mindset of those two who did not build it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  18. Clanton says:

    @rudderpedals: Are you talking about the US Eldridge, that ship that was in the Philadelphia Naval yards and suddenly disappeared for a period of time during invisibility experiments?

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  19. Doug says:

    @bk: Come on now. We all know that Romney shares a “severely” deep connection with our service members by virtue of his business dealings with those in the defense industry.

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