My book, Why Veterans Run, describes the political paths of the presidential candidates who served in the armed forces. John McCain features prominently. His passing last week, complicated by the steady antagonist treatment he received from President Trump, should be discussed not only as a moment in the Trump administration, but also on its own terms.
I wrote quite a bit about him in chapter eight on the Vietnam War veterans, along with the others (John Kerry and Al Gore). Here is an excerpt, relating to the day in October, 1967 when he was shot down over Hanoi:
…After his education at the U.S. Naval Academy, McCain became an aviator and piloted carrier-based A-4 Skyhawks. These single-seat small planes were used during the Vietnam War as fast, light bombers. For his twenty-third bombing mission, McCain flew with his squadron to attack a power station in North Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, in October 1967. McCain watched the radar tracking alarm light up, signaling a likely incoming surface-to-air missile (SAM); engaged countermeasures; and then dove and dropped his payload. After dropping his bombs, his plane’s wing was destroyed by the SAM, forcing McCain to eject over hostile territory. Ejecting from a small combat aircraft even when not in hostile conditions is dangerous. The process to push the pilot from the aircraft uses controlled explosives to quickly launch the seat from the cockpit—the intention being to save the life without excessive concern for the limbs. McCain’s arms and legs were severely injured by the ejection. While he survived and landed in a lake, he sustained many injuries and broken bones that were made worse by the crowd that pulled him from the water and beat him, as well as neglect and abuse by his captors.
When he first ran for Congress in 1982, he “deflected carpetbagger accusations” with the following memorable line:
I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.
(photo via US Navy)
There is a lot of attention on the congressional race in Kentucky’s sixth where one of the several female Democrats with military experience is challenging a nonveteran GOP incumbent. Congressman Andy Barr made an unforced error when he appeared to some to put his time in Congress somehow as equivalent to challenger Amy McGrath’s time flying F/A-18s in combat over Iraq and Afghanistan. Details of what he actually said can be found here, but this just looks like a freshman error for someone trying to remain in office. Remember when Mitt Romney tried to convey that the time his sons were spending helping him try to win the presidency was somehow tantamount to serving in the armed forces? That only put more light on the sons’ (and Romney’s) lack of service.
Why does it seem like this was an really easy one to avoid? McGrath’s service is vividly central in her campaign biography, maybe more so than the other vets running. Even down to the last detail: her campaign website’s favicon is a little blue outline of an F/A-18.
While reporting by Arun Venugopal seems to suggest that flying an American flag is “intimidating” for some viewers (not sure about that one), another headline about flags caught my eye.
Steve Watkins is running for a US House seat, seeking to replace a retiring GOP member in a red district in Kansas. The primary is in August, which will choose one of the many Republicans to probably win in November—Trump won this area handily. Watkins is using an art display to generate some free media that focuses on his own military service. Watkins makes his experience as a part of the Long Gray Line and time as a Captain in the Army in Afghanistan very central in his own campaign biography.
Apparently, a “public art project” at the University of Kansas entitled “Pledges of Allegiance” commissioned artists to add images to American flags. The example that piqued Watkins’ ire features two dark splotches near the center of the flag. The museum tweeted a response the the criticism that others began to echo after Watkins that says it’s all about a polarized America:
(photo credit to Roger Sayles)
Someone just forwarded me a recent ad run by a Democratic challenger in NY-19 that’s worth a look:
Pat Ryan, a OIF combat veteran who graduated from West Point, is mounting a challenge in a district that is definitely in the “doable” category. The incumbent, John Faso, is a freshman Republican who won in 2016 by a slim margin in a district that Obama carried both times. Trump moved it red in 2016, but this winnable district is likely to attract DCCC support.
What caught my eye, especially given how purple the district is, was the use of military experience to convey issue competence. He’s holding an assault rifle in his hands while discusses their lethality–along with clever imagery of children in schools donning flak jackets and helmets to try to tie AR-15s with battlefields instead of 2nd Amendment home defense postures.
There is precedent for this sort of move, but the outcome did not go the way the Dems hoped it would last cycle. Check out his ad that conveys this candidate’s intimate familiarity with the weapon:
Jason Kander was narrowly defeated by Roy Blunt in the Missouri US Senate contest. Kander certainly overperformed the party baseline for the Show-Me State (Hillary Clinton earned 38% of the popular vote), and this ad certainly was among the most memorable of the cycle.
I expect to see more Democratic veterans, especially those with combat experience, do this sort of thing–in ads, on the stump, and in debates.
David Leal over at the University of Texas and I just published a piece in Electoral Studies about electoral turnout and previous military service.We find that veterans participate in elections more than a similarly-situated nonveteran. More interestingly, we show that military service helps those with low levels of formal education a lot: being a vet especially helps those to the polls who face lower-than-usual likelihood of voting.
¡For a limited time, it’s not behind a paywall–check it out!
I had a great conversation with Michael Schulder about veterans in elections that he turned into a wonderful episode of his “Wavemaker Conversations: A Podcast for the Insanely Curious.”
Check it out!
Asma Khalid’s worked up a story on a “JFK with tattoos,” a Democrat with military service hoping to win a congressional seat this cycle. The article focuses on Richard Ojeda, and the first sentence, as articles like this tend to, makes his time in the army central to his identity as a political candidate. Now, obviously, reporters engaging stories about congressional (or presidential) candidates vis-à-vis military service experience generally makes me happy. Yet, I wish more journalists understood and contextualized the district partisanship and underlying demographics. Khalid does disclose that Ojeda is swimming upstream: West Virginia was quite taken with Trump in ’16 while Romney and McCain carried it with more modest but still comfortable margins. I recently retweeted another article that was less sensitive to context that referred to Democratic veterans as a “secret weapon,” and Alexander McCoy over at Common Defense wasn’t having any of that.
His take is worth repeating: vets’ DD-214 is not in itself a ticket to Election Day success. Not every candidate with a service record will be buoyed by their time in uniform. It depends heavily on the context in which they’re running. We should focus on Ojeda’s service record, sure, but he’s also what election scholars refer to as a “quality candidate,” because he’s won previous elections and served as as state legislator.
George P. Bush, who does does not share the rest of his extended family’s disdain for Donald Trump, is a rising political force in Texas. He’s running for reelection in his statewide job (and presumably stepping stone to higher office) of State Land Commissioner. However, Jeb Bush’s son seems to be tripping over his military service record.
W. Gardner Selby just wrote a piece about a recent mailer Bush sent out to Texans. He claims to be a “Retired U.S. Navy officer,” but those with military experience or connections thereto know that “retirement” is different than “veteran.” It takes a career to retire and it comes with far more benefits than those who separate after one or two hitches in uniform. Don’t expect the campaign to make the same error twice if this turns into bigger news.
Utterly irrelevant side note for full disclosure: I once got George P. Bush out. In the early ’00s, both he and I were students at the University of Texas and played intramural softball. He was a law student, I in political science (our team name: “The Regime”). Bush batted left and I played deep right. They crushed us in the final score, but I found the right spot in the outfield to wait. The ball stayed in the air for about a week (he did *not* inherit a “low energy” swing from his dad), but I got it.
I received word that there was a female veteran hoping to challenge Republican Sean Duffy of the Wisconsin 7th congressional district. The district appears fairly purple, and we all know that rural Wisconsin is ground-zero for the sort of places where Trump gained ground on Obama’s previous vote shares. It’s unclear if she is the sole Dem in the race, but we’ll stay tuned to WI-7. The district has a veteran population right around 10%
An article on WKOW’s website is not terribly revealing, but I gathered that Margaret Engebretson is putting her military service experience center stage given that her Twitter handle is @vetfordemocracy. What caught my eye at the tail of the story (twin tail?!?), however, was that she plans to officially announce her candidacy at the Richard I. Bong historical site.
Who is Richard I. Bong, you ask? He is one of Wisconsin’s most famous sons! The Medal of Honor winner shot down 40, FORTY, Japanese planes over the Pacific in World War II. He flew one of the most distinctive of our fighters, the twin-tailed, twin-engined P-38.
With the propellers off to the side, the P-38 could support a ton of gun right in the nose. (Photo, which is not Bong’s plane, from Wikimedia)
Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) is starting to become one of the most newsworthy members of her cohort of legislators. She recently announced her pregnancy, which warranted coverage given the fact that no sitting U.S. senator has ever had a baby (given birth!) before.
However, more relevant to our interests, she has become one of the top Democrats’ go-to Donald Trump critics. I’m paying specific attention to how she weaves her own military service in Iraq into her criticisms of the president.
Duckworth, an OIF Black Hawk pilot injured by an RPG, has been increasingly vocal in engaging Trump. Her most recent appellation for the president is “Cadet Bone Spurs,” circa this tweet:
This was a retort, hitting back at Trump’s February 5th diversion-from-the-teleprompter in Ohio, in which he insinuated that those that failed to clap for him at the State of the Union were possibly “treasonous,” though he framed it in his frequently-used “they say” or “some say” pattern.
She’s also called him a “five-deferment draft dodger,” presumably in reference to the educational and medical deferments Trump obtained during the Vietnam War.
In my new book, I did my best to make a bang-up index. Regrettably, while you can find “beef, embalmed,” I felt “spurs, bone” not sufficiently index-worthy. More seriously, the book does of course speak to Trump’s 2016 candidacy in the context of other Vietnam-war eligible presidential candidates, roughly from Bill Clinton to Trump.
(image from wikimedia)