August 3, 2008, Palm Beach, Florida – The growing ranks of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will have a lot to say about who becomes president. And what they are saying isn’t what you might expect.
In theory, John McCain, with his long record of service as a Navy pilot and prisoner of war story from Vietnam, should have the market cornered on the military vote.
Instead, he has drawn opposition from many veterans because of his voting record in the Senate. Sen. McCain has voted against bills that would have improved veterans’ benefits, particularly health care, or measures to ease the strain on active-duty troops and their families.
The disapproval among vets for Sen. McCain has fed surprising support for Barack Obama, who has voted for many of the veterans’ initiatives in the Senate that his opponent rejected.
One of the last things the McCain campaign expected was to wind up in the cross hairs of angry veterans and having to fight off repeated attacks. But, then, that was also one of the last things the decorated veteran John Kerry expected in 2004.
The Internet has given rise to a new generation of veterans groups that line up from one end of the political spectrum to the other – Veterans for Peace at the left end and the Swift Boat Vets on the right.
Among the many misconceptions about running for president is that a military combat record makes a candidate more electable.
In fact, the converse is true, at least since the Vietnam War changed Americans’ perspectives about service in the armed forces.
None of the three presidents who have won two terms since the ’70s has done it on the strength of his military credentials.
As an Army officer during World War II, Ronald Reagan made government movies for the war effort while stationed in Culver City, Cal. Bill Clinton has no military record, and lingering questions about why he has none. George W. Bush made sure the skies were safe over Houston when he served on the homefront with the Texas Air National Guard during the height of Vietnam.
Presidential candidates with truly heroic service in World War II have been big losers in November: George McGovern was a decorated B-24 bomber pilot who flew dozens of missions over Africa and Europe; Bob Dole nearly died from wounds suffered in Italy, and lost the use of his right arm; George H.W. Bush earned the Distinguished Flying Cross after getting shot down during one of many bombing missions in the Pacific.
When it comes to winning support from veterans, Sen. McCain’s voting record on their issues is an imposing obstacle.
The Disabled Veterans of America gives him a 20 percent rating, compared with an 80 percent rating for Sen. Obama. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America gives Sen. McCain a D and Sen. Obama a B+. The Vietnam Veterans of America say Sen. McCain has voted against them on 15 issues.
One of the most vocal and fastest-growing veterans groups to oppose the McCain campaign is VoteVets.org. Formed in 2006, the organization claims a membership of roughly 100,000, with a political action committee devoted to electing congressional candidates who oppose the handling of the Iraq war.
Especially galling to VoteVets.org is Sen. McCain’s opposition to the new, bipartisan GI Bill that increases education benefits for Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Sen. Obama voted for the bill when it passed 75-22 in May; Sen. McCain was on the campaign trail and did not vote.
The size of the veterans’ vote is easier to calculate than its direction. The nation has about 24 million veterans – a population the size of California – with 1.7 million of them in Florida. In 2004, roughly 80 percent of vets turned out to vote, compared with 64 percent of nonveterans. American veterans are 80 percent white non-Hispanic, 11 percent African-American, 6 percent Hispanic and 92 percent male. Their median age is 60, and 60 percent of them live in urban areas.
Veterans are politically and demographically diverse – a long way from a monolithic voting bloc. But Sen. McCain is running the risk of uniting them against him.