Military service, Trump, and Joe Arpaio

The politics of military service found two colorful streams in the past few days. While he got his fair share of criticism over the timing of it (given the imminent landfall of Hurricane Harvey), Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio as the Friday news cycle wound down. Arpaio of course was convicted last month on charges related to defying a court order by continuing racial profiling. Trump hinted that he would pardon Arpaio at a campaign style rally (2020 ostensibly) days prior, and pulled the trigger Friday.

Now, this blog does not really care about the president exercising one of his actually-clearly-spelled-out-powers in the constitution itself—what caught my eye was the justification offered: Arpaio was a Korean War-era army veteran. Trump aide Tom Bossert (and others) said,

“I think there’s a clemency argument that can be made for the long history of service…in the United States military…”

He joined a medical unit and spent time in France during the Korean War according to Wikipedia. A few years back when he created a veteran-segregated jail wing to help veterans, he said, “I served in the military in the Korean War,” so maybe Wikipedia has it wrong, whatever, I’m not sailing this ship down the Stolon Valor seas (unless exaggerated claims are forthcoming).

So why rely on his army service from more than 50 years ago to justify the pardon? In my mind, it’s the easiest part of the entire story to understand. Veterans enjoy a sort of first-class citizenship position in American civic space, so reminding the audience that Arpaio wore a U.S. Army uniform as a young man distracts from his controversies as sheriff.

The Trump administration caused a stir in military policy in the exact same news cycle with a detail-light ban on transgender recruitment. We’ll hear more on this after Harvey settles down, but apparently, one Trump cabinet member’s daughter does not approve of the commander in chief’s transgender move. Jennifer Detlefsen, daughter of the Interior Secretary, served in the navy and avoided nuance in her response:

“This veteran says sit down and shut the f–k up, you know-nothing, never-served piece of s–t.”

(photo from Gage Skidmore)

GOP Congressman primaried regarding avoiding Iraq service

Republican Steven Palazzo (MS-04) is receiving criticism from a GOP challenger regarding his service record, or a perceived deficiency in it. Mississippi TV media is giving attention to Brian Rose, who seeks to unseat Palazzo in the 2018 GOP primary. Rose is offering documents he claims show that Palazzo “sought special favors to be assigned duty at Camp Shelby, rather than be sent to Iraq with the 155th battalion in 2004.” This is a solidly GOP district, so this intraparty combat is where the action is. It’s important to note that Rose is a combat veteran himself, which makes it easier for this line of attack.

Annapolis grad & F-18 combat flier seeks KY-06 upset

Amy McGrath announced this week that she’s seeking the Democratic nomination to unseat Mitch McConnell ally Andy Barr. Her intro video is compelling. It starts with her early life attempts 20 years ago to join the armed forces in a combat unit and how she dealt with being stymied by policy at the time.

She’s not the only one hoping to be on the Democratic line next year, though. If she does prevail in the Dem primaries, she’ll need to make up ground where previous Democrats have failed. Barr won with 61% last year and the Cook rating has the district around R+9.

Fun fact! Within KY-06 is the Blue Grass Army Depot, where I was stationed for awhile in the USAF (unlikely spot for an airman, but there you go. Long story).

Democrats seek veteran candidates, but this is not the first time: district partisanship matters

In 2016, Democrats nominated 173 candidates to take on Republican incumbents in the House of Representatives while Republicans chose 102 people to take on Democratic incumbents. Ignoring open seats (as well as California and the other states with top-two nominating systems), I plotted the kinds of districts where these nominations took place to contrast where military veterans were nominated versus nonveterans.


Parties differed in where veterans emerged from the primaries. The 26 Republican veteran candidates ran in races that were 5% more competitive than Republican nonveterans, while the Democrats nominated 34 veterans in places that were more red than the Dem nonveterans.

This says that both parties are nominating a lot of military veterans, but Republicans do so in more competitive districts (at least in 2016) than the Democrats do.

This seems a bit odd, given that Democrats have very recently signaled that they hope to nominate veterans and highlight them as a theme.

It’s not the first time Democrats have signaled the importance of veteran candidacies. In 2006, Democrats nominated even more Democrats to run than 2016, the “Fighting Dems,” but they mostly lost–largely because they ran in districts where Democrats had little hope of prevailing, irrespective of the quality of the candidate.