In Mitt Romney, the Republican party has it’s first presidential candidate since Tom Dewey without any military experience. What will this mean for the Republicans and their narrative as the Party of War?
Every Republican presidential nominee from Dwight Eisenhower to John McCain served in the military. Eisenhower, of course, had the ultimate military background as a West Point graduate who rose to five-star general and Supreme Allied Commander. Bob Dole and John McCain suffered grievous wounds in combat, with McCain additionally suffering wounds from torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors. For both of them, their military service was a modest amount of time in their professional lives yet had a profound impact on them personally and in forming their professional identities. For others, such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, serving in a supply unit and a film unit respectively, their World War II military service was a minor part of their professional identity, but a part nonetheless.
Although every election has its own focus and rhythm, the modern Republican Party has been consistently aggressive in attacking Democrats as weak on national security and attacking Vietnam-era Democrats for their actions around serving. Bill Clinton was excoriated for never serving and his efforts to legally avoid being drafted were closely scrutinized. Al Gore, who volunteered for the army, was similarly scrutinized for what some cast as favorable treatment while serving. The apogee was in 2004, when the Republican campaign essentially consisted of 1) attacking John Kerry as unpatriotic, evidenced by his insufficiently short time in combat and insufficiently light combat wounds, and 2) invoking September 11th.
Mitt Romney brings us right back to our Vietnam-era conflicts. He is a contemporary not of Barack Obama, but of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, younger than 42 and 43 by only seven and eight months, respectively. He is a closer contemporary of John Kerry, who is 3 years older, than of Barack Obama, who is 14 years younger than Romney. Like his contemporaries, Mitt Romney had to deal with the draft and the Vietnam War. He received a deferment for his church mission to France, as well as student deferments. When he later registered he received a high draft number and was neither drafted nor volunteered. More like Bill Clinton (with a dash of Dick Cheney, perhaps) than George W. Bush, and not remotely like John McCain or John Kerry.
For the candidate, questions include why he decided to seek deferments and what did he do to obtain them? What do his actions show about his character, good or bad, and how did the experience shape him? How does the absence of military service shape his hawkish pronouncements?
Will the Republican party’s narrative as the party quick to use military force, guardian against all external threats, and supporter of all things military, suffer with such a candidate? How will it deal with Mitt Romney’s views on the Vietnam War, (according to the New York Times 11/15/07)?
“’I was surprised,’ Mr. Romney recalled, “when I heard my father, then running for president, say that we were wrong, that we had been told lies by our military, that the course of the war was not going as well as we thought it was and that we had been mistaken when we had entered the war. It obviously caused me to reconsider what I had previously thought.”
He added, ‘Ultimately, I came to believe that he was right.'”
~ John Kenny