Will the dozens of Democratic vets running for office from coast to coast reverse the Republican revolution and help take back Congress? Or will they be Swift Boated and shot down by the Republican chickenhawks who managed to defeat John Kerry, Max Cleland, and John McCain by impugning their patriotism and military service?
The Democrats are excited about candidates who can neutralize their Republican opponents' tougher image. But, as a New York Times Week in Review piece pointed out Sunday, "After John Kerry's loss in 2004, some Democratic strategists have given up on the idea that a candidate's military experience alone would level the playing field on the issue of national security."
If the Dems are going to retake the House, they need more than a bunch of military uniforms, Representative Rahm Emmanuel, Democrat of Illinois (who is in charge of the Democrats’ House races in 2006) rightly points out in the Times piece. Actually, one thing they need is the opposite of Emmanuel's tentative Republican-light position on Iraq.
Military veterans who speak out strongly against this Administration's wasteful, dishonest, and incompetent war-making policies have the potential to galvanize voters. Witness the excitement stirred up by Representative John Murtha's demand that U.S. troops be withdrawn from their sitting-duck position in Iraq. Murtha's critique of the war let loose an explosion of agreement from a public that has been way ahead of the Democratic Party on this issue for a while.
Or, to take a contrary example, remember the failed Kerry campaign, in which the trappings of military service and patriotism became a hollow shell for a politician who waffled on his record of opposition to the war in Vietnam and supported--with many qualifications and qualms--the war in Iraq. The Republicans zeroed in on Kerry's ambivalent record.
The appearance that his campaign was trying to hide something bothered voters. The Kerry campaign wanted to trade on the candidate's war record by suppressing his opposition to the war in which he served. Instead, had Kerry had the guts and foresight to vote against the Iraq war, he would have been able to take the moral high ground against an opponent who dodged service in Vietnam and later sent thousands of Americans to die in an equally ill-fated mission.
It IS possible for Democratic veterans to gain a special edge in the upcoming election. Opposition to the war in Iraq is at 55 percent in the polls. Even voters who chose Bush in the last election are troubled by this President's complicated relationship to the truth, and his cavalier attitude about the safety of U.S. troops. This year's candidates can point to cuts in veteran's benefits, and lack of proper protective gear, and an overall lack of planning in the war, as evidence of the Republicans’ negligence.
In a February 9 Pew poll, 50 percent of registered voters said they were planning to vote for Democrats this year, while only 41 percent said they were planning to vote Republican. The time is right for a strong opposition to drive home the message that Americans--including American troops--deserve a better government.
The flood of evidence that the Republicans have bungled Iraq, botched Katrina relief, and used the sacrifice and suffering of American victims of terrorism--at home, on 9/11, and abroad, in Iraq--to hoard power for themselves, makes this a ripe political moment.
Even an event like last week's ridiculous Cheney hunting accident is revealing, prompting Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, to remark that had the Vice President been in the military, he might have learned something about gun safety. Like Murtha, with his reference to Cheney's five draft deferments, Hagel was speaking to a public that understands the sacrifice gap between the troops and the Administration that got us into the mess in Iraq.
Democrats are missing a "golden opportunity," pollster John Zogby recently commented, pointing out that opposition to the party in power is at a peak. Yet the Democrats don't seem to be able to catch the wave.
Two years ago, the Democrats tried putting on a uniform, and they learned that it wasn't enough. This year, they've got a lot more uniforms running. What they need is for the political courage of the party leadership to match the battlefield courage of the candidates.
The lesson for this year's veteran candidates: shoot straight, and draw a sharp contrast with an Administration that doesn't.