Do McCain’s Medals Matter?

Jake Tapper, notes the contrast between DNC chair Howard Dean’s statements about John Kerry’s military service in 2004 and McCain’s in 2008.

Commenting on John McCain’s new “The American President that Americans Have Been Waiting For” ad yesterday, Dean said, “While we honor McCain’s military service, the fact is Americans want a real leader who offers real solutions, not a blatant opportunist who doesn’t understand the economy and is promising to keep our troops in Iraq for 100 years.”

Tapper reminds us that, in March 2004, Dean said, “The real issue is this. Who would you rather have in charge of the defense of the United States of America, a group of people who never served a day overseas in their life, or a guy who served his country honorably and has three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star on the battlefields of Vietnam?” Tapper observes, “McCain, by the way, has been awarded the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, two Bronze Star Medals, a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross.”

Of course, the notion that military heroism in one’s youth automatically qualifies you to be president later is life — let alone settles the issue if one’s opponent never wore the uniform — is silly. That Kerry and McCain served when others didn’t and that they acquitted themselves well under extreme stress redounds to their credit and earns them a certain amount of respect and deflects some lines of attack. But it’s not the end of the discussion.

The first presidential election in which I was truly engaged was the 1980 contest between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. On the merits of their military careers, re-electing Carter would have been the obvious choice. He was, after all, an Annapolis grad and had been a rising star in the Navy’s nuclear program under Admiral Rickover. Reagan, by contrast, made propaganda films for the Army. Reagan was nonetheless my choice (although I was not yet eligible to vote for him) and he turned out to be better on foreign and military affairs than his rival.

In 1984, the first election in which I was old enough to participate, Reagan ran for re-election against Carter’s former vice president, Walter Mondale, who served as a corporal at Fort Knox during the Korean War. Let’s just say their respective military careers didn’t factor into my calculations.

In 1988, we had George H.W. Bush, who earned a Distinguished Flying Cross as the Navy’s youngest pilot in WWII, and Michael Dukakis, who had two years of peacetime service in Korea but looked very funny driving a tank during the campaign.

In 1992, Bush was defeated by artful draft dodger Bill Clinton. The contrast in their military service was an issue in the campaign, to be sure, but obviously not a decisive one. In 1996, Clinton handily defeated Bob Dole, who can’t use his right arm because of wounds suffered in WWII.

The 2000 election pitted George W. Bush, who was trained to fly an obsolete fighter jet during the closing days of Vietnam and sort of served in the National Guard afterwards, against Clinton’s former VP, Al Gore, who served as an Army photojournalist in Vietnam. Bush won re-election against Kerry, who served gallantly as an officer with the Swift Boats.

As James Taranto notes, “You have to go back to 1988 . . . to find an election in which the winner clearly had a more impressive military record than the loser.” Depending on your politics, you might think we’d have been better off if some of them had gone the other way. Likely, though, not because of the military service issue.

If, as seems likely, John McCain faces Barack Obama in the fall, he’ll have an easier time making the “ready on day one” argument. He’ll have a credibility advantage in talking about military affairs. But the election, ultimately, will turn on their competing visions of the future and whether Americans trust them at the controls.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, 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. Dave Schuler says:

    But the election, ultimately, will turn on their competing visions of the future and whether Americans trust them at the controls.

    That’s what American presidential elections have always been about and I see no reason this one will be any different. Problems with the economy, the perception of lower risk internationally, and his positive attitude all look like they will make this a good year for Barack Obmaa.

    John McCain has strong points and weak ones. His military experience is a strong point as is the fact that he’s the only candidate with any actual training in leadership. As our military has demonstrated leadership isn’t just a gift it’s a skill.

    Weak points include his age.

    But you don’t just elect a candidate you elect a team and at this point Barack Obama’s domestic policy advisors look pretty good while his foreign policy advisors concern me. Like most presidents I suspect a President Obama will come into office interested primarily in domestic policy and will be overwhelmed by foreign policy.

    Since the presidency is mostly about foreign policy, the military, and managing the federal bureaucracy, that isn’t particularly surprising but candidates continue to step forward to campaign to become the Governor-at-large.

  2. spencer says:

    Just to be difficult.

    McCain’s military career and public image is a celebration of a military failure– being shot down in combat. Being shot down as a pilot is roughly the equivalent of having your position overrun as an infantry officer– right?

    Do you want your president to be someone who’s most famous experience is one of failure?

  3. Davebo says:

    Spencer, that angle is pretty dangerous.

    Why not go with the Dubya comparisons instead.

    McCain’s father and grandfather were Admirals in the Navy.

    This connection got him into Annapolis where he graduated fifth from the bottom of his class.

    His time in Pensacola undergoing pilot training was equally underwhelming.

  4. G. Weightman says:

    McCain’s “most famous experience” was enduring several years of living hell after he refused to be released before his fellow POWs. Compare that to Obama’s twenty years of listening to Reverend Wright’s sermons and you have quite a stark contrast.

  5. Tim says:

    To slam McCain for being shot down while on a mission, has got to be one of the most insane and disgusting things you can read.

    I don’t like McCain for a number of reasons. But among them, sure isn’t the fact of his service?

    Tell me Spencer, is every servicemember who earned a Purple Heart deserving of being insulted for not being able to duck?

    Seriously, the people who insult McCain’s sacrifice, what he went through, for whatever purpose are like a cancer.

  6. Bithead says:

    “While we honor McCain’s military service, the fact is Americans want a real leader who offers real solutions, not a blatant opportunist who doesn’t understand the economy and is promising to keep our troops in Iraq for 100 years.”

    Well, seems to me the ‘not’ part of that statement encompasses both Clinton and Obama, rather nicely, although Dean would never say so.

    And is it important? John Kerry seemed to think so, for reasons of his own, when he was busy gaming the system to get medals…. and changing his middle name to ‘served in Vietnam’. Granted, somewhat less so when he was busy borrowing medals to toss over the White House fence.

    The issue, clearly, is results gets attach to invoking a history of military service., which wuld seem to explain the different reaction to Kerry’s military service then, and McCain’s now.

    Just to be difficult.

    Yeah, well, let’s examine this.

    Do you want your president to be someone who’s most famous experience is one of an erstwhile husband, himself a president, whose biggest accomplishment while in office is Monica Lewinsky? Bad enough that the guy has to run around on you… but with THAT? A mark of failure by any measure. A big one.

    On the other hand, do we really want Obama, whose biggest accomplishment was… what was it again, he’s claiming to have done?

  7. Davebo says:

    Tell me Spencer, is every servicemember who earned a Purple Heart deserving of being insulted for not being able to duck?

    Only if they are democrats apparantly.

    We really do have short memories don’t we?

  8. jainphx says:

    Military records aside, what recommends either one to be POTUS. I wish I could gleefully vote for John McCain, but I can’t. Not saying I won’t vote for him, but please don’t try to convince me he’s actually a Reagan Conservative. Voted against tax cuts until he saw results, then and only then did he say they were right. I don’t want a President with hind sight, we must have foresight ala Ronald Reagan. What actually does he stand for, can anyone tell me, he’s all over the place. Damn were screwed!

  9. GW says:

    Military service is a plus. If not else, it gives the candidate some additional perspective of what his actions will translate into for our military on the ground. It will also give a candidate perhaps a more realistic feel for our military’s capabilities and limitations. That said, anyone who is smart enough to be elected president will likely be smart enough to pick up on this information, prior service or not.

    FDR had been afflicted with polio and unable to serve in the military. He was none-the-less an effective war time leader.

    Bill Clinton had no military service. He was also incompetent in the deployment of our military – think Somolia and the ineffective response to bin Laden. This had much more to do with politics and Clinton’s character than his ability to comprehend our military’s capabilities and limitations.

    I think voluntary and honorable military service is one more tool in assessing the mosaic of a candidates character. Do they act based on principle or based on political expediency? The former will always be an effective leader – the only question being do you want to follow where they will lead. The latter cannot be counted on to act with determination in the dark days of a crisis when casualties mount. They will be ruled by winds of polls.

  10. jeff b says:

    Like it or not, McCain’s military record is one of repeated calamity. He graduated in the bottom 1% of his class at the academy, was involved in that carrier fire, and so forth. He did honorable service to his country and we thank him for that, but as far as I can tell nothing in his military service prepared him for the presidency. He can probably distinguish a Lt from a Capt at a glance, but that’s hardly an important achievement.

    Aside from his service record, his recent statements regarding Iran and its role in Iraq, and his utter ignorance of the differences dividing the Shia and Sunni, and which is aligned with bin Laden, show that his understanding of the worldwide strategic situation is near zero.

  11. RiverRat says:

    That Kerry and McCain served when others didn’t and that they acquitted themselves well under extreme stress redounds to their credit and earns them a certain amount of respect and deflects some lines of attack. But it’s not the end of the discussion.

    I served in Nam for 15 months as a Riverine Patrol Officer, 2.5 of them with a self-aggrandizing Kerry who I met a few times in Nha Be in December of ’68.

    Kerry did not “acquit himself honorably or well” and urinated on graves for political advancement later. McCain served in “Nam” for over 6 years with 5.5 of them in captivity.

    You’re welcome to your opinion but get your facts straight. Implying equivalence of their service is worthy of extreme scorn. Which I gladly offer you.

    Proud member of Swiftboat Veterans for Truth.

  12. Clovis says:

    but as far as I can tell nothing in his military service prepared him for the presidency.

    Well, when offered an easy but dishonorable course of action he remained steadfast.

    Some might see that as demonstrating courage and leadership. I’m one of them. I’ve got plenty of problems with McCain, but I believe that he as proven his ability to make the hard choices and stick with them. His opponents seem to be more like poll-watching will-o-the-whims.

  13. floyd says:

    Almost any soldier with combat experience would tell you that the fight was not for personal privilege or gain, but to protect the liberties which allow every American an equal voice, and a chance to participate in governance.
    This said, that soldier’s experience goes some distance to inform the public of the character required to do so, and to inform the soldier of the terrible cost of that liberty.

  14. sam says:

    The 2000 election pitted George W. Bush, who was trained to fly an obsolete fighter jet during the closing days of Vietnam and sort of served in the National Guard afterwards

    🙂

  15. ted says:

    We don’t need to listen to democrats about McCain’s service. Bush’s supporters back in the 2000 campaign claimed that McCain betrayed his fellow POWs for favorable treatment. Loyal republicans denigrate McCain far worse than the dems do.

  16. floyd says:

    Ted;
    GASP!! You mean McCain is a Republican???

  17. jainphx says:

    Exactly who was it that said he refused to leave until every one else left before him, someone please tell me.

  18. Barry says:

    Posted by Clovis: “Well, when offered an easy but dishonorable course of action he remained steadfast.”

    True, but the thing about McCain is that he’s spent the rest of his life working very hard to live that down, so to speak. The hero of the Hanoi Hilton (and I think that he was a genuine hero) is long dead.

    “Some might see that as demonstrating courage and leadership. I’m one of them. I’ve got plenty of problems with McCain, but I believe that he as proven his ability to make the hard choices and stick with them. His opponents seem to be more like poll-watching will-o-the-whims.”

    He’s demonstrated repeated ability to make the wrong choices, and to stick with them long after most people have figured them out. He’s demonstrated to bullsh*t the press shamelessly, and to get away with it (which pretty much seemed merely to involve liquoring them up). He’s demonstrated dishonesty and lack of character – ‘hard choices’?

  19. Barry says:

    Posted by RiverRat: “I served in Nam for 15 months as a Riverine Patrol Officer, 2.5 of them with a self-aggrandizing Kerry who I met a few times in Nha Be in December of ‘68.

    Kerry did not “acquit himself honorably or well” and urinated on graves for political advancement later. McCain served in “Nam” for over 6 years with 5.5 of them in captivity. ”

    IIRC, every member of Kerry’s crew supported him, except for the one guy he had court-martialed. I’ll take the record as proof of his actions.