An election without veterans

posted at 11:01 am on August 12, 2012 by Jazz Shaw

With the now official selection of Paul Ryan as the running mate to Mitt Romney, (and the President’s team taking their first shots at him) we have the final pairings of the four men running for the highest offices in the land. And for the first time since 1944, not one of them has ever served in the uniform of our country. Barack Obama graduated from high school in 1979, well after the draft had ended. While he claimed in at least one interview that he did “entertain the idea of joining the service” after high school, he added that, “it’s not an option that I ever decided to pursue.”

Mitt Romney received a draft deferment after high school as a Mormon minister of religion for the duration of his missionary work and then received an additional three years of deferments for academic studies. He was eligible and available for the draft for one year – in 1970 – but drew a very high number in the lottery when the highest number called that year was 195.

Joe Biden received a total of five student deferments before taking a physical and receiving a draft classification of 1-Y due to having asthma, essentially removing him from consideration.

Paul Ryan, the youngest of the four by nearly a decade, was obviously never subject to the draft. He graduated college in 1992 with degrees in economics and political science and immediately went to work as an aide to Senator Bob Kasten of Wisconsin, beginning a career in politics which continues to this day. I have not located any quotes about whether or not he ever considered enlisting.

Obviously military service isn’t a prerequisite to serving as President, but should it matter to voters? Does one have to have served in the military to truly “get” the military when they step into the role of Commander in Chief? The fact that we’ve had veterans in contention for the last 68 years seems as if it would be telling to some degree, but the times they are a changing. Shortly before Ryan’s selection was announced, Bridget Johnson examined this very question, concluding that the importance we place on military service – or lack thereof – may well depend on where our priorities lie in any given election cycle.

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.

The presidential race isn’t alone in its faltering military representation: The number of veterans in the 112th Congress is just over 20 percent, the lowest number since World War II and a full 50 percent less than the number of veterans in Congress in 1975. There hasn’t been a draft since the Vietnam War and the conflicts since then have included the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the conflict in Afghanistan.

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.

Are we losing something by weeding out the veterans from the pack of contenders? Would Rick Perry’s history of service have brought something to the table that we need more than the combined business and economic acumen of Team R&R? Or does it just not matter that much anymore?

Update: Doug Mataconis doesn’t seem to think we’re losing much in the deal.

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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