Why War Heroes Lose
In recent times, contrary to historical example, it seems to be a liability to run for president as a war hero. Well, not really a liability, but they certainly lose a lot. And this year, for the first time since 1944, neither major party candidate has served in uniform. Recent history may explain why.
George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole, two decorated combat veterans, lost to Bill Clinton, who used a feint towards the National Guard to get out of fighting in Southeast Asia. George W. Bush, a stateside guardsmen, beat Al Gore and John Kerry, who both served in Vietnam. (Yes, Gore was a military reporter and yes, serving in the National Guard is an highly honorable way to serve America, but it was well known during the Vietnam War that getting into the Guard here in America was a way to avoid going to Vietnam.) The first President Bush did beat Michael Dukakis, who was only a peacetime grunt in Korea, but that was mostly on momentum created by Ronald Reagan -- who shot propaganda films rather than Germans.
So why have combat veterans lost so often in the last few decades? What happened to the Brass Rule of politics that so often stayed true from Washington to Grant to Eisenhower? I think the political parties over-learned the lesson of that trend. They began to overvalue a military biography, and excuse other flaws because of its lure. After getting beat up for so many years on national security, Democrats leapt at Lt. Kerry’s Silver Star, and ignored that fact that this heroic warrior couldn't connect with Midwestern voters. John McCain’s incredibly honorable actions as a POW were so highly valued by Republicans that they told themselves it didn't matter he was now a Washington insider who didn't speak well on the stump.
Voters still appreciated the service of these men, but not enough to ignore the fact that they didn't feel a connection. Their opponents – men like Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama – had to grab their party’s nomination without the deference given to heroes, so they needed to be better politicians. The best formula, from a political point of view at least, is to have both heroism and charisma, like John F. Kennedy. But for whatever reason, that combination seems to occur rarely national politics. Which is why Gen. Wes Clark is now hosting a reality show.
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