Democrats Attack McCain’s Military Experience

Supporters of Hillary Clinton, apparently forgetting that she’s probably not going to get the nomination, yesterday moved on to the general election campaign and trotted out a new line of attack: John McCain doesn’t have the right experience to be commander-in-chief.

The opening salvo came from, of all people, Gloria Steinem. And she did it in Texas.

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem took to the stump on Hillary Clinton’s behalf here last night and quickly proved that she has lost none of her taste for provocation.

From the stage, the 73-year-old seemed to denigrate the importance of John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. In an interview with the Observer afterward, she suggested that Barack Obama benefits—and Clinton suffers—because Americans view racism more seriously than sexism.

Steinem also told the crowd that one reason to back Clinton was because “she actually enjoys conflict.” And she claimed that if Clinton’s experience as First Lady were taken seriously in relation to her White House bid, people might “finally admit that, say, being a secretary is the best way to learn your boss’s job and take it over.”

Steinem raised McCain’s Vietnam imprisonment as she sought to highlight an alleged gender-based media bias against Clinton. “Suppose John McCain had been Joan McCain and Joan McCain had got captured, shot down and been a POW for eight years. [The media would ask], ‘What did you do wrong to get captured? What terrible things did you do while you were there as a captive for eight years?’” Steinem said, to laughter from the audience. McCain was, in fact, a prisoner of war for around five-and-a-half years, during which time he was tortured repeatedly. Referring to his time in captivity, Steinem said with bewilderment, “I mean, hello? This is supposed to be a qualification to be president? I don’t think so.”

Steinem’s broader argument was that the media and the political world are too admiring of militarism in all its guises. “I am so grateful that she [Clinton] hasn’t been trained to kill anybody. And she probably didn’t even play war games as a kid. It’s a great relief from Bush in his jump suit and from Kerry saluting.”

To the Observer, Steinem insisted that “from George Washington to Jack Kennedy and PT-109 we have behaved as if killing people is a qualification for ruling people.”

We could reasonably dismiss this talk as the raving of a lunatic, I suppose. The Clinton campaign quickly distanced themselves from the remarks, although without actually rejecting their premise:

The Clinton campaign sends over the following statement from Howard Wolfson: “Senator Clinton has repeatedly praised Senator McCain’s courage and service to our country. These comments certainly do not represent her thinking in any way. Senator Clinton intends to have a respectful debate with Senator McCain on the issues.”

Unfortunately, former NATO commander Wes Clark, a much more respectable Clinton surrogate on these issues, echoed the same theme in a blogger conference call. Byron York provides the transcript:

In the national security business, the question is, do you have — when you have served in uniform, do you really have the relevant experience for making the decisions at the top that have to be made? Everybody admires John McCain’s service as a fighter pilot, his courage as a prisoner of war. There’s no issue there. He’s a great man and an honorable man. But having served as a fighter pilot — and I know my experience as a company commander in Vietnam — that doesn’t prepare you to be commander-in-chief in terms of dealing with the national strategic issues that are involved. It may give you a feeling for what the troops are going through in the process, but it doesn’t give you the experience first hand of the national strategic issues.

If you look at what Hillary Clinton has done during her time as the First Lady of the United States, her travel to 80 countries, her representing the U.S. abroad, plus her years in the Senate, I think she’s the most experienced and capable person in the race, not only for representing am abroad, but for dealing with the tough issues of national security.

York also quotes Admiral William Owens, former vice chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, following Clark’s remarks with, “I would just say that I agree with Wes on that.”

Clinton supporter Taylor Marsh links York’s transcript as authoritative and has a podcast of the entire call available.

This is a spectacularly dumb line of attack. It’s true, I think, that being a fighter pilot and prisoner of war is not, in and of itself, experience which necessarily qualifies an individual to make decisions on matters of grand strategy. But McCain’s experience isn’t limited to that Clark had as a mere company commander in Vietnam; he rose to the rank of captain (equivalent to an Army/Air Force/Marine colonel) and did a tour as the Navy’s liaison to the United States Senate. He followed that with four years in the United States House of Representatives and another 22 as a United States Senator. He’s a former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and is now the committee’s Ranking Member.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, tagged along on some trips overseas with her hubby, the president.

One can make the argument with some credibility that seven years in the Senate as a backbencher and eight years as the partner of a Commander-in-Chief provides enough experience to make strategic decisions. But to argue that she’s “the most experienced and capable person in the race” on these issues is laughably absurd.

This isn’t Bush-Kerry, either. While I argued strongly against the attempts of the Swift Boaters and others to besmirch Kerry’s heroic service in Vietnam (but that hammering his outrageous post-war attacks on his fellow veterans was fair game) we were indeed comparing the records of two junior military officers, one of whom served with valor for several months in a combat zone while the other did the bare minimum he could get away with in the Air National Guard. That comparison redounded to Kerry’s benefit and for Bush surrogates to draw attention to it was stupid; attempting to discredit Kerry’s fine service was cheap and slimy. But Bush had, by the 2004 campaign, almost a full term as Commander-in-Chief. That rather obviated Kerry’s advantage on military experience.

While I don’t like her personally and have some questions about her temperament, and goodness knows disagreements on policy, I believe Hillary Clinton has sufficient seasoning to do the job of president. But John McCain has much more of it. It’s just silly of the Clinton campaign to try to pretend otherwise.

The “experience” card might make more sense in a McCain-Obama race, although I’m skeptical that it’d work. Voters likely won’t make their decision on that basis. If Clinton somehow wins the nomination, though, it’ll be a non-factor in the race.

UPDATE: AllahPundit summarizes Clinton’s argument: “Having seen the horrors of war isn’t quite as valuable experience-wise as picking out White House china patterns.” Slightly unfair, perhaps, but funny.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Pug says:

    Obama asked yesterday what specific foreign polciy experience does Hillary Clinton allege she has that makes her so suited to be commander-in-chief? I wish she would answer the question.

    This is an argument McCain will win against either Clinton or Obama and it is what he wants to make the election about. Stupid, Hillary.

  2. al bee says:

    I searched the Post for a rebuttal, but to no surprise the Post once again ignored a Democrat “nasty”. Probably show up on Saturdays Style section in the page 3 garbage column. Normally that is where they hide the Democrat baloney that they are too embarrassed to print else where. They hid Hillairy’s tepid Gandhi joke; in the middle between two throwaways.

  3. LaurenceB says:

    But Bush had, by the 2004 campaign, almost a full term as Commander-in-Chief. That rather obviated Kerry’s advantage on military experience.

    When I read this, I was reminded of how insignificant “experience” can actually be – Bush’s “experience” in running the Iraq War is hardly a ringing endorsement for him.

    Basically, Obama is right, judgment generally trumps experience.

  4. SeniorD says:

    Mr. Joyner,

    Several points raised in your essay need clarification:

    1. Senator McCain graduated from Naval Academy. His father was Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Theater (a Four Star Billet). One cannot easily dismiss such education and exposure to military strategic thought. Granted, while his Academy days were not the stellar quality of a Nimitz or Halsey, his actions while a POW reflect well upon the best Naval Traditions.

    2. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth showed John Kerry to be nothing than a simple ‘gamer’. Kerry learned of a way to legally get transferred back to the US. Thus, Kerry ‘volunteered’ for Riverine Patrol Duty, made a mockery of the Purple Heart and, credibly, demonstrated a severe lack of intestinal fortitude. His actions prior to and after his transfer to ‘the World’ repudiate anything honorable about his intentions and actions.

    3. General Wesley Clark, a graduate of West Point, does not have any standing within the military. His classmates, former Commanding Officers and troops know him for what he truly is: a political animal who placed his soul in hock to the Clintons. That is why he was named CINCEUR (until he was relieved early). Clearly, General Clark is no Eisenhower.

    4. Gloria Steinem – who believes anything she says? The only feminist ‘celebrity’ further to the left of Gloria Steinem is Barbra Streisand. Between the two of them, they may have an IQ above room temperature.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Bush’s “experience” in running the Iraq War is hardly a ringing endorsement for him.

    Basically, Obama is right, judgment generally trumps experience.

    Sure. But one needs experience to demonstrate judgment. That Obama got the Iraq War right, especially making one binary call, is hardly evidence that he’s a fine strategic thinker. Contrariwise, McCain getting a call or two wrong — out of dozens of calls — hardly disqualifies him.

  6. SavageView says:

    Sure. But one needs experience to demonstrate judgment. That Obama got the Iraq War right, especially making one binary call, is hardly evidence that he’s a fine strategic thinker. Contrariwise, McCain getting a call or two wrong — out of dozens of calls — hardly disqualifies him.

    Since, of course, all judgment calls are equal. Sugar with my coffee = pre-emptive initiation of war. Did you happen to hear what the Saint said about vaccines? This, combined with the notion that he “has Greenspan’s book,” is truly a reflection of the man’s judgment.

  7. If you look at what Hillary Clinton has done during her time as the First Lady of the United States, her travel to 80 countries, her representing the U.S. abroad…

    In other words, Hillary has more experience spending tax dollars than anyone else, so she is the most qualified to spend even more tax dollars than Senators Obama and McCain.

  8. Anderson says:

    I am reminded of the old joke, to be delivered in an FDR voice:

    I have seen war.

    I have seen Eleanor.

    I prefer … war.

  9. Elly says:

    General Wesley Clark, a graduate of West Point, does not have any standing within the military. His classmates, former Commanding Officers and troops know him for what he truly is: a political animal who placed his soul in hock to the Clintons.

    True, true!
    My husband was a senior Army officer who worked with Clark. The saying about him was:
    “General Clark is always behind you. The hard part is determining if he’s back there to kiss your butt or stab you in the back”

  10. DL says:

    When they penned the Declaration of Independence and the Emmacipation Proclamation, exactly how much actual military experience had those Washington and Lincoln fellows? I hope the GOP has more than McCain heroism and military “experience” to to offer the country. Oh yes there’s Kyoto, amnesty, embryonic murder for experimentation, tax increases, “Hillary will make a good president” foolishness, the gang of 14 rebellion, the Keating five fiasco, and that oscar winning performance over Barack’s middle name …what a list to stay home for.

  11. Bruce Moomaw says:

    In response to two of the points above:

    (1) McCain did indeed graduate from the Naval Academy — 894th out of 899 in his class. While his behavior as a POW was obviously courageous, it goes without saying that a military leader — or a President — badly needs something besides courage, namely brains. And a Presidential candidate who actually sings “Bomb, Bomb Iran” on a campaign podium would seem to be a little deficient in the latter department.

    (2) As historian and National Security Archive analyst John Prados points out ( http://hnn.us/roundup/comments/7132.html ), Kerry’s “outrageous post-war attacks on his fellow veterans” consisted largely of veterans — with provable records and identities — attacking THEMSELVES publicly for engaging in war crimes. And a great many of his, and their, other accusations regarding large numbers of totally unpunished US war crimes in Indochina have since been solidly confirmed by historians and by the press. You may recall that the Toledo Blade won a Pulitzer in 2004 ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiger_Force ) for uncovering the activities of the Tiger Force, in a series featuring plenty of first-person confessions.

    But then, it was always awfully peculiar that James Joyner could simultaneously praise Kerry’s “heroic service in Vietnam” and accuse him of acting like Benedict Arnold the moment he got back. You can’t have it both ways, Mr. Joyner.

  12. david says:

    “But having served as a fighter pilot — and I know my experience as a company commander in Vietnam — that doesn’t prepare you to be commander-in-chief in terms of dealing with the national strategic issues that are involved.”

    This is not what liberals were saying four years ago when Kerry was running for President.

  13. Bruce Moomaw says:

    Actually, what liberals said about Kerry was mainly that Republicans were wrong when they said — as, at the time, they were saying with great enthusiasm — that virtually all Democrats had become irrational doves who shrank from the possibility of fighting ANY war, no matter how justified. Kerry was intended to disprove that particular point, and he did. Unfortunately, his own views on foreign and military policy turned out to be almost as incoherent as Bush’s, thus allowing the latter a narrow victory.