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Does Military Service Matter in a President?

For the first time since 1944, Americans will be asked to choose between candidates with no military experience to be the next commander in chief.

by
Bridget Johnson

Bio

August 9, 2012 - 3:27 pm
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The last time there was a presidential election where neither of the candidates had military service was 1944. Thomas Dewey and Franklin D. Roosevelt were facing off to be commander in chief during World War II.

In that respect, 2012 will be a historic election. Neither President Obama nor presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has military service, and depending on Romney’s vice presidential pick even more history could be made.

And according to polls, analysts are wondering more than voters are about the effect this could have on the position of commander in chief.

Obama lost the veterans’ vote by 10 points to former POW Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) four years ago.

Obama’s Last Stand, an upcoming e-book on the 2012 race by Politico reporter Glenn Thrush, notes how the military angle reportedly plays into the president’s view of his opponents then and now: “When he talked about Romney, aides picked up a level of anger he never had for Clinton or McCain, even after Sarah Palin was picked as his running mate. ‘There was a baseline of respect for John McCain. The president always thought he was an honorable man and a war hero,’ said a longtime Obama adviser. ‘That doesn’t hold true for Romney. He was no goddamned war hero.’”

McCain, however, didn’t let Obama off the hook in criticism of the fellow senator’s lack of military service. “I take a backseat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans,” McCain said in May 2008. “And I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did.”

Romney received four draft deferments for college and Mormon missionary work. Of the contenders in the Republican primary, neither former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) nor former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has military experience. Gingrich would later say of his choice to get Vietnam War student deferments that “given everything I believe in, a large part of me thinks I should have gone over.”

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) served as a flight surgeon in the Air Force and Air National Guard. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) was a captain in the Air Force. Herman Cain was a civilian ballistics analyst for the Navy.

The last time nobody on either ticket had military experience was 1932.

Vice President Joe Biden received five student draft deferments and has no military service. The names generally considered to be the front-runners for Romney’s VP pick all don’t have military experience: Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Throughout American history, more than 60 percent of presidents have served in the military. Do voters care if a candidate to be commander in chief has military experience?

A Rasmussen poll last month found military veterans supporting Romney by a wide margin over Obama, 59 percent to 35 percent. A May Gallup poll showed similar veteran support in favor of Romney by 58 percent to 34 percent, with the rate highest among older, male veterans.

But Gallup polling from 2004 and 2008 revealed that the majority of voters said military service didn’t matter when choosing a president. Being a war hero didn’t help Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush defeat Bill Clinton.

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