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12/31/2005

More on 'Fighting Dems'

My post on the 'Fighting Dems' strategy - running Democratic candidates who have served in Iraq - has seen some responses, one by Neil the Werewolf, another by Media Girl, and a couple by angry commenters at the original post. I should also mention that my post is heavily indebted to those by Mike the Mad Biologist and Kos diarist NCHeartland. I would encourage anyone interested in this issue to read their contributions.

First, let me respond to some readers who felt insulted by my post. In retrospect, this isn't very surprising; some of the language I used was less than polite. So I might be guilty of being overly snarky, but I don't have any actual animosity towards those who disagree with me on this topic, so I'm sorry about that.

Second, I'd like to preface this by saying something that I think colors my perception about these matters. Now, this is something that would probably end my career if I were a politician, but here it is: I am not particularly impressed by military service. I don't find anything particularly admirable about joining the military. I don't respect people any more simply because they sign up to wear the uniform.

Now, I don't hold it against them, necessarily. I don't think of it as a negative. In most cases, it is a big fat neutral in my book. I supported Kerry in '04, but his military service had exactly nothing to do with it; it didn't temper my support, but nor did it animate it. When it comes to military backgrounds for politicians, if it helps electorally, great, if it doesn't, then I see no reason to value it. If I thought that a war veteran was more likely to be elected, then I'd say the Dems should run as many veterans as they can get their hands on. If a vet is neither more nor less likely to win, I'd say ignore military experience. If being a vet makes one less likely to win, then I would say avoid candidates with military experience. So my approach to this is strictly utilitarian, in the colloquial sense.

So with that out of the way, let me address Neil's points. I have enormous respect for Neil; in fact, he's one of only a handful people whose opinion I hold in high enough regard that if I discover that he disagrees with me, I'll actually re-think my own opinion, even if in the end I still end up disagreeing.

Neil starts by pointing out the difference between candidates like Kerry and those like Hackett:
There’s a world of difference between a presidential candidate who has the mannerisms of a Senator invoking his Vietnam service, and a congressional candidate who actually sounds like a soldier invoking his Iraq service. Kerry had a long public record, and there were more things that could interfere with his attempt to cultivate a military image. One of these things was his own speaking style, which sounded nothing like the stereotype of a military man. The war he fought over 30 years ago was against a different enemy. By contrast, congressional candidates who served in Iraq – especially if their bearing, like that of Paul Hackett, fits some military stereotype – will get instant credibility on a huge issue in contemporary American politics.
Point taken about Kerry, and the temporal distance of his military service. It is certainly possible that military service is something that Kerry just couldn't take advantage of, while others could. I didn't mean to lean on the Kerry example too much; my point was to simply point to the lack of evidence that military service is an unqualified positive.

As for 'instant credibility' ... well, that remains to be seen. Part of my problem with the 'Fighting Dems' strategy is that there's no real evidence of this. It's certainly plausible, but it's also plausible that this instant credibility is chimerical. Neil, however, thinks that Hackett's previous performance does constitute evidence:
Which brings me to Hackett. He polled 48.3% in a district where Republicans held a 3-1 registration advantage and no Democrat in 12 years had surpassed Lee Hornberger’s 29.1% score from 1993. Jean Schmidt’s weakness and Hackett’s donations from werewolves are part of the explanation. But there’s no doubt that Hackett’s military background, around which he built his campaign, accounts for a big chunk of the improvement. If you’re looking for data to predict how Fighting Dems will do in congressional races, he’s the best comparison case.
I suppose this is just a judgment call, but I can't help but see Hackett's performance as something of a fluke. Why did Hackett do so well in that race? His military service was certainly part of it, but only indirectly, I think. As Neil points out, he had an incredibly weak opponent. But he also had ridiculous media coverage, most of it quite positive. He had a sort of novelty appeal, being the first Iraq vet to run for congress. In an off-year election, I think those factors are enough to explain Hackett's 'success'. I think the Hackett race actually has more in common with Jean Carnahan's election in 2000 than it will with any races in 2006. At any rate, I would caution anyone from using it as a basis for any conclusions about the political usefulness of military experience. Extrapolating from the Hackett race is dangerous. Consider this: if Hackett had come out against abortion in his heavily Republican district, he might have done well based on that, but that doesn't mean it would be a wise statewide or national strategy.
The vast majority of the Iraq veterans in the primary won’t face anything close to the Swift Boating that Kerry faced. Remember that Kerry had a Nixon-appointed stalker, John O’Neill, connected to a pool of 527 money and a network of veterans who hated him for his part in the Winter Soldier investigation. Most congressional candidates won’t have anything like that against them.
Absolutely. But I take the Swift Boat precedent as teaching us that military service isn't actually held in very high regard by the electorate, as long as someone is willing to actually criticize someone for it. Another example of this is John McCain. If being a veteran were ever going to help anyone, it would have been McCain in the Republican primaries. But GOP voters scorned McCain for George W. Bush, who not only lacked military experience (no, the Texas NG doesn't count), but was actually a certified draft-dodger. The Bush camp easily neutralized McCain's service - even the most potent aspect of it, his time in POW camp - by floating stupid rumors about McCain being a 'Manchurian candidate' and having a black child.

But so far, this discussion leaves untouched what I think is the biggest problem with the 'Fighting Dems' strategy: it makes it almost inevitable that these campaigns will focus on foreign policy/national security, which I see as the exact opposite of what Democrats want. The GOP has been able to consolidate power, despite domestic policies that are disastrous and unpopular, because of their advantage on matters of war. This is irrational on the part of the electorate, of course, but there you have it. So putting up a candidate fresh out of Iraq guarantees that the campaign will be about Iraq, when it should be about health care, taxes, etc. The only strength the GOP has is its war policy, and their ability to convince voters that a vote for a Democrat is a vote for bin Laden. The more the discussion focuses on these issues, the happier Karl Rove is. I think the Dems would be wise to stop letting the GOP distract voters by waging patriotic pissing contests and force them to start talking about domestic issues, on which the Democratic position outpolls the GOP stance almost universally. This, I think, is the road to victory. Terrorism and war should be marginalized as much as possible as a campaign issue, not willingly brought to center stage by running Iraq vets.

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