Politics & Government

McCain served, Obama didn't — does it matter?

Lt. Cmdr. John McCain is pulled from a Hanoi lake by North Vietnamese soldiers in 1967 after his plane was shot down.
Lt. Cmdr. John McCain is pulled from a Hanoi lake by North Vietnamese soldiers in 1967 after his plane was shot down. AP

WASHINGTON — How important is military service in this presidential election?

Republican nominee John McCain has a vaunted military record. Democrat Barack Obama has none. But four months out from the voting, Obama is ahead in national surveys.

History shows that whether a candidate has military experience rarely determines who'll win election to the nation's highest office. Still, there's enough evidence that Americans respect military service and connect it to patriotism that Obama has been making a concerted effort, especially as Independence Day approached, to talk about his love of country and respect for an institution he never joined.

"We must always express our profound gratitude for the service of our men and women in uniform — period," Obama said Monday in a speech about patriotism, adding that a silver lining of the war in Iraq "has been the widespread recognition that whether you support this war or oppose it, the sacrifice of our troops is always worthy of honor."

Speaking on national service, Obama said Wednesday that in addition to services such as teaching and volunteering, "we must value and encourage military service across our society."

McCain, despite holding a hero's record from Vietnam, has found the value of his own military experience challenged recently by Democrats, notably including retired Gen. Wes Clark, who said that having your plane shot down, as McCain did, didn't qualify you to be president.

McCain is testing how hard to hit Obama for his lack of military service. He keeps prodding Obama to visit Iraq, saying that the freshman Illinois senator's call for troop withdrawals lacks credibility since he hasn't been there for more than two years. Obama recently said that he'd travel to Iraq and Afghanistan this year as part of a congressional delegation.

During a recent Senate debate over a new GI Bill, McCain jabbed: "I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did."

A year ago, when conventional wisdom said Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee, the question was: In wartime, would America elect a woman with no military experience, especially if her rival were a male vet such as McCain?

With Obama the Democrats' presumptive nominee, it's a different question: Will enough Americans entrust wartime decisions to a man, now 46, who came of age after the draft ended with U.S. involvement in Vietnam in 1973 and, like most young people since then, wasn't expected by society to serve?

Consider some findings from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center:

  • Americans' low esteem for the federal government doesn't extend to the military. A May survey found support for the federal government the lowest in at least a decade — 37 percent — with President Bush's favorability at only 27 percent. But the survey indicated a favorability rating of 84 percent for the military.
  • Military service topped a list of presidential-candidate traits that would make Americans more likely to support someone in a February 2007 survey. Some 48 percent said they'd be more likely to support a candidate with military service; only 3 percent said they'd be less likely to do so.
  • Respondents to an April survey were asked which traits described various candidates. Ninety percent thought the word "patriotic" described McCain, while 61 percent thought it fit Obama. Seventy-one percent said "tough" fit McCain but only 49 percent applied it to Obama. Obama did better with "inspiring": 66 percent, to 39 percent for McCain.
  • More than twice as many U.S. presidents have had military experience as haven't. For some, it was central to their identities, from George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower.

    But it seems to have become less important in recent times. Bill Clinton didn't serve, and he defeated Republican combat veterans in 1992 and 1996. Both his victories came in peacetime, however.

    President Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, served in World War II; Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and the current President Bush had varying degrees of military service but saw no combat.

    Bush's 2004 challenger, Democrat John Kerry, was a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, but Americans then generally supported the invasion of Iraq and were uneasy about switching the commander in chief a year and half into the war.

    Presidential historian Robert Dallek said in an interview this week that military experience in a candidate "is useful, it's valuable" but "it's no guarantee of anything. What's much more important is judgment."

    McCain's record as a naval aviator who was shot down, held prisoner and tortured in Vietnam, and who brought his military experience to bear in Congress, helps him as a presidential candidate, Dallek said.

    On the other hand, Dallek said of McCain: "Look at what he's had to say about Vietnam. He believes we should have won in Vietnam, that victory was possible, that we should have bombed more. ... And now he's a staunch supporter of this Iraq war."

    Obama opposed the Iraq war before doing so was popular and now argues that his stand shows that he has sound judgment.

    A CNN/Opinion Research poll released Tuesday found that one in four Americans think that Obama isn't sufficiently patriotic, but that sentiment is more pronounced among Republicans than independents, and only one in 10 Democrats think it's a problem.

    Dallek said if the election were held today, Obama probably would win, largely because Bush is so unpopular. But with months to go, Dallek said that Obama was right to heed voters' respect for the military. In many voters' minds, Dallek said, "The military and patriotism seem to be closely tied."

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