Does Military Service Matter in a President?

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.

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.


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