Perry stressed his service on the campaign trail and said that men and women in uniform would prefer one of their own over a commander in chief who “never served a day in the military.” This was the basis for more shots at Obama than his primary competitors. “The president had the opportunity to serve his country I’m sure, at some time, and he made the decision that that wasn’t what he wanted to do,” Perry told a crowd in Iowa a year ago.
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.
That’s not to say military service hasn’t become an issue this campaign cycle. The biggest headline-maker in this area — and one of the nastiest races — has been the effort of Democrat Tammy Duckworth, a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot in Iraq who lost both legs in the line of duty, to unseat Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.). “She is a hero, and that demands our respect, but it doesn’t demand our vote,” Walsh has said. “All she does, guys, is talk about her service.” Duckworth, calling Walsh “an extremist loudmouth for the Tea Party,” has accused the congressman of denigrating military service “for his own political gain.”
But politics and military don’t always mix, as evidenced by the reluctance of recent highly decorated servicemen to jump into the ring.
Gen. “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf’s celebrity during the Gulf War stoked speculation about whether he would run for political office, but instead he retired to Florida. Four-star Gen. Colin Powell stirred similar speculation, but he’s since alienated much of his Republican Party’s base. And even though a Gen. David Petraeus run is allegedly causing heartburn for Obama, the current CIA director has repeatedly asserted that he has no political ambitions.
Romney could put military service on his ticket by picking Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who was a lieutenant colonel in the Army, served a total of 21 years on active duty and reserves, and speaks proudly of his daughter’s service as a platoon leader in Iraq. “I did get a little bit emotional,” McDonnell said of his daughter’s harrowing war-zone stories. “But she didn’t. She got the job done.”
But both tickets this year may just be comfortable with military service being low on voters’ checklists.