Does American love a man (or woman) in uniform? I wonder.
An interesting debate has broken out over the so-called "Fighting Democrats" -- new Democratic political candidates who happen to have military experience -- starting in a Daily Kos diary a couple of days ago. Dadahead picked up on the question yesterday:
Witness the fascination, especially among bloggers, with Democratic candidates who have military experience. Why anyone
would think that being a veteran is an advantage for a Democrat, after the the flame-out of Wesley Clark and the swift-boating of John Kerry, is beyond me. But the delusion that Democrats can neutralize the GOP's advantage on 'national security' by running candidates who have worn a uniform persists.
Clark wins one straw poll after another at Daily Kos, and left-of-center bloggers are practically lining up to fellate Paul Hackett. Why? For one reason, and one reason only: they've served in the military. Military service, it is thought, is the key to electability, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Liberals really need to be shaken out of this delusion.
Very intriguing. But this just scratches the surface of the analysis offered in NCHeartland's dK diary:
Wedge the other guy's base, not your own:
When Bill Clinton defeated veterans George H.W. Bush then Bob Dole, the era of required military service to serve the people was declared dead. Why is the Democratic Party trying to revive a dead era? Because there's a war on? Because they need a public relations face-lift? Stacking the House (and our party) with vets may sound like a good idea superficially, but what's the actual message? Is there any other kind of Democrat but a fighting one? Apparently not according to the "Fightin' Dems" brand. Forget education, jobs, privacy, community responsibility--our values and what we stand for; all we want now is 'boots on the ground' experience to combat Bush's war. The tactic looks cynical and reactionary--Why? Because it is. If many of us in the Democratic Party are turned off, what do you think swing voters (not to mention republicans) will think?
If all we needed to take America back was an "officer and a gentleman" to sweep everyone from hippies to hawks off their feet, John Kerry would be President right now. And if the republicans didn't have a plan to undo every 'hero' someone places on a pedestal, John McCain wouldn't be a punchline.
Does anyone really think this tactic scares republicans? One little bit? This distraction from the issues is permission to swift boat the entire party with broad brush strokes. I'm doing it right now. Look how easy we've made it. You can't swift boat someone until some moron places them on a pedestal - Not only smugly above their republican opponent, but above the typical voter. That makes knocking someone down a peg or two not only welcome, but a spectator sport. If you don't think Frank Luntz has a national campaign ready to tailor to each of these "uniformed" Dems, open a window -- The fumes from the broad brush being used to paint the "Fightin' Dems" as our savior will be turned against us faster than John Kerry can change his mind.
Forget Katrina, there's a war on:
"Fightin' Dems" not only accepts the republican framing of the war as the most vital issue of our day, it endorses it. In Washington the war in Iraq may be the most important issue to "get Bush" but how does that translate to a family in NC, or AZ, or PA that can't buy food, afford healthcare or find a job? Triangulate. How do "Fightin' Dems" fighting Bush (or his war) help the average swing voter's bottom line? Politics 101: It's still the economy, Stupid.
And what does "Fightin' Dems" even mean? I mean really mean? I've seen fresh from the front lines and ready to face Bush, among other things and worse. Are we serious? Do we still not get swing voters at all?
First, the supposed metaphorical appeal of a candidate in uniform (Dem or otherwise) is one of discipline, heroism and patriotism. Right? Or am I giving the DCCC too much credit here? If the idea is experience on foreign ground is what matters, we've already lost the swing voter that thinks in terms of values, not product benefits. If the message is Dems can wage republican wars more competently, then again John Kerry would be President if that even remotely worked.
So "Fightin' Dems" is a viable message to send swing voters if the goal here is to not only accept the republican framing that the war is the most important issue of 2006, but endorse the idea that only people with military backgrounds will be taken seriously in Congress.
Let me tell you what swing voters actually see in this giddy "Fightin' Dems" hysteria. 'Cause it aint pretty. Order takers, not following orders. Subordinates turning on their Commander in Chief. Whiners. Every "Fightin' Dem" is an insubordinate flip-flopper. See how easy that was? Did you really not see this coming? Learn from our mistakes. Stop repeating them.
While on the most superficial of levels a "Fightin' Dem" does accurately project the chickenhawk nature of his republican opponent (which worked so well in 2004), it actually does much more damage to the "Fightin' Dem" (and our party) than it does any opponent. "Look at me! I'm a turncoat. Swiftboat at will. I was for the war (even fought in it) before I was against it. But I can wage it better than my boss. And by the way, the other Dems aren't "Fightin' Dems" like me. I'm special. Better than you even."
And there's the real rub. In this cynical effort to reframe the elitist stereotypes of the Democratic Party, "Fightin' Dems" effectively enforces it. It also demonstrates a common criticism of the Democratic Party that it doesn't know what it stands for, and reinvents itself on whims. We are the war party now? We wage war better than anyone? What happened to the people's party? The party of regular working people, labor, education, healthcare, our environment, equality? CHOICE? Not to mention diplomacy and cooperation.
The last part, especially, is what concerns me. Whatever happened to progressive values? Liberal values? Democratic values? Many "fighting Dem" supporters call themselves "progressive," but it seems almost as a form of cover, or simply to differentiate themselves from wingnuts. Meanwhile they crash down on anyone who calls for candidates who support progressive values as "single-issue voters" who are only interested in "ideological purity" or just their "pet cause" -- often couched to portray progressive values (of tolerance and inclusion when it comes to effective government for government, healthcare policy and equal rights for all) as being "intolerant" of other views --- never mind many of those other views are defined by intolerance. Can we just 86 progressive values as just too inconvenient for politics?
There's a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party, and the "fighting Dems" approach is emblematic of the theory that the greatest vulnerability Democrats have is the politically inconvenient amalgam of traditional Democratic values.
Mike the Mad Biologist adds:
The Counterargument: Image
For rebuttal, Ezra Klein Ezra Klein's guest-blogger, Neil the Ethical Werewolf, talks up the appeal of the military [attribution corrected. -mg]
Thereâ€™s a world of difference between a presidential candidate who has the mannerisms of a Senator invoking his Vietnam service, and a congressional candidate who actually sounds like a soldier invoking his Iraq service. Kerry had a long public record, and there were more things that could interfere with his attempt to cultivate a military image. One of these things was his own speaking style, which sounded nothing like the stereotype of a military man. The war he fought over 30 years ago was against a different enemy. By contrast, congressional candidates who served in Iraq â€“ especially if their bearing, like that of Paul Hackett, fits some military stereotype â€“ will get instant credibility on a huge issue in contemporary American politics.
I think this oversimplifies the perception of our fighting forces. What the uniform represents is not automatic leadership. In fact, American military leadership is looking pretty poor right now. While sympathy is with those who are paying the dearest price for the war, it seems pretty transparent to me that anyone who tries to appeal to voters simply on that basis is going to come off as smelling a bit false. The uniform is not political armor -- Gore, McCain and Kerry are proof of that. The candidate has to step up with character, and nobody needs a uniform for that.
The vast majority of the Iraq veterans in the primary wonâ€™t face anything close to the Swift Boating that Kerry faced. Remember that Kerry had a Nixon-appointed stalker, John Oâ€™Neill, connected to a pool of 527 money and a network of veterans who hated him for his part in the Winter Soldier investigation. Most congressional candidates wonâ€™t have anything like that against them. And if they do, they can still respond as Kerry should have â€“ by thrusting out their chests on TV and using the allegations as a platform to boast about what they actually did. Furthermore, as Jean Schmidt has recently learned, actual politicians slander ex-soldiers at their peril.
I don't think it takes 30 years for the flush and well-oiled Republican smear machine to develop a hate for any candidate that steps up against them. And as history shows us, they don't even need facts: they'll just make things up, as they did with Kerry, as they did with McCain, as they did with Iraq.
As for veterans' simply puffing up their chests and boasting about their war exploits, I'm not sure how that would appeal to many voters. I don't care how many sorties they flew or insurgents they killed. I want to know what they would do in office. I want to know their plans, their beliefs, their philosophy. And that puts them on the same footing as any other candidate.
And holding up Schmidt's blunder against Murtha as some sort of proof that veterans are now slander-proof doesn't wash with me. Murtha may have emerged from obscurity due to his speaking out, but he didn't emerge unscathed, and in the end he seemed to simply declare victory and retreat.
The Bottom Line
When I look at a candidate, I look at who they are as people. Let's face it -- lots of chuckleheads go enlist in the military because nobody else would have them, or because the violent life actually appeals to them. I don't think these sorts actually define our military, but just because someone wore the uniform doesn't automatically mean that that person has character or integrity or a clear vision of where the country should be going. Richard Nixon was a veteran. Lee Harvey Oswald wore the uniform. And if we've learned anything in the past year, the uniform doesn't automatically make the man or woman worthy of wearing it.
I don't know much about Paul Hackett or Sherrod Brown, the primary Democratic candidates for Ohio's senate seat who seem to be at the center of this debate. It seems to me that the Democratic Party will only be helped by a robustly competed primary. And not just in Ohio.
Of all the "fighting Dems," I've seen only Major Tammy Duckworth (on C-SPAN, mostly), and she really has impressed me. But it's not because she wore the uniform. It's not even how she's met her injuries with such an incredibly positive attitude. It's because of how she talks about life, how she talks about working with other people, how she seems to understand how to get things done, and that's not military -- though she's the first to credit her military background for discovering that talent within her.
She's a leader. She's a manager. I could see her being effective. And that, more than anything else, is why I find her appealing and why, were I in her district, I would consider voting for her.
But it would come down to her values. What does she stand for? What does she want to accomplish? What role does she see government playing in our nation? What solutions does she see to problems we face?
I don't think I'm alone when I say that's the kind of thing that motivates me to vote for someone. The largest voting bloc in this nation is the non-voting bloc -- those who don't find anyone to vote for and feel that deciding whether Beavis or Butthead would be less worse is hardly a reason to take off work or find a sitter for the kids and go wait in line at the polls.
So for me, when it comes to the so-called "fighting Dems," I shrug and yawn. Tell me what you're going to do. That's what matters to me.