McCain's War Experience Might Not Be A Strength
by J Ro, Sat Mar 29, 2008 at 12:27:03 PM EDT
Matt Stoller made a very interesting observation yesterday. Talking about McCain's first general election advertisement, he said:
McCain is obviously hinging his whole campaign on his POW time in Vietnam, with this spot closing with 'An American President Americans Have Been Waiting for'. This is a frequent tool he deploys when he speaks with the press, saying things like 'I haven't been questioned this hard since Hanoi'.
I can't help but think that it's a foolish narrative. 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 all saw the candidate without military service elected over the candidate who had served, in several cases heroically.
I decided to take a little closer look at this phenomenon. Obviously, the war hero turned President narrative is ingrained in our history. People like George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower rode their wartime popularity to political success. In election campaigns, candidates like to use their wartime experience to prove to the public they know something about sacrifice, fortitude, public service, steely resolve, judgment, or any other number of character traits candidates think the American people care about.
Whether veterans actually end up getting elected more often over their non-serving opponents is another question.
Looking back at the elections since 1948 (the election after FDR died), the picture is much more mixed. Below is a chart of the candidates and winners of each election, with their veteran status noted. For the purposes of this chart, veteran means serving overseas, which disqualifies candidates like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.
|Year||Democratic Candidate||Republican Candidate||Winner|
|2004||John Kerry (veteran)||George W. Bush||George W. Bush|
|2000||Al Gore (veteran)||George W. Bush||George W. Bush|
|1996||Bill Clinton||Bob Dole (veteran)||Bill Clinton|
|1992||Bill Clinton||George H.W. Bush (veteran)||Bill Clinton|
|1988||Michael Dukakis (veteran)||George H.W. Bush (veteran)||George H.W. Bush (veteran)|
|1984||Walter Mondale||Ronald Reagan||Ronald Reagan|
|1980||Jimmy Carter (veteran)||Ronald Reagan||Ronald Reagan|
|1976||Jimmy Carter (veteran)||Gerald Ford (veteran)||Jimmy Carter (veteran)|
|1972||George McGovern (veteran)||Richard Nixon (veteran)||Richard Nixon (veteran)|
|1968||Hubert Humphrey||Richard Nixon (veteran)||Richard Nixon (veteran)|
|1964||Lyndon Johnson||Barry Goldwater (veteran)||Lyndon Johnson|
|1960||John F. Kennedy (veteran)||Richard Nixon (veteran)||John F. Kennedy (veteran)|
|1956||Adlai Stevenson||Dwight D. Eisenhower (veteran)||Dwight D. Eisenhower (veteran)|
|1952||Adlai Stevenson||Dwight D. Eisenhower (veteran)||Dwight D. Eisenhower (veteran)|
|1948||Harry Truman (veteran)||Thomas Dewey||Harry Truman (veteran)|
As you can see, a veteran candidate has beaten their non-veteran opponent only four times since 1948, whereas a non-veteran candidate has beaten their veteran opponent six times. (Lyndon Johnson really can't be called a veteran, even though he received the Silver Star.)
Moreover, there is a pretty clear pattern over time from 1948 to 2004. While veteran candidates like Eisenhower and Truman beat their non-veteran opponents in the years directly after WWII, in more recent times, non-veterans have been winning. The last time a veteran (Nixon) beat a non-veteran (Humphrey) was 1968.
The reason for this change is unclear, but I can speculate: Veteran candidates were winning after WWII, which was largely seen as a just, righteous, and even popular war. During Vietnam - a war Americans were deeply ambivalent about - a veteran beat a non-veteran once and vice-versa. Since then, in America's relative time of peace (the Iraq debacle notwithstanding), non-veterans have been winning over veteran opponents handily.
Based on this data, it is doubtful John McCain's status as a "war hero" will significantly boost his campaign. While America is indeed involved in a very bloody war in Iraq, I don't think many Americans feel a deep connection with it - especially a positive one. Iraq is very unpopular, and on top of that, by and large Americans have not been asked to sacrifice for the war effort like they were during WWII and Vietnam. So, recently, while many Presidential candidates are veterans, they don't seem to get elected more often over their non-veterans opponents.
For the American people these days, it's less about a candidate's war biography than their policies and how they run their races - and that bodes ill for the old, unstable, and out-of-touch John McCain.