If the Republicans decide to use military experience as a way to attack Barack Obama this fall, nobody should be surprised. If there's been one common misperception about Democrats since the end of the Vietnam War, it's that Democrats tend to be "anti-military."
Rush Limbaugh and his ilk were more than happy to spread the canard about retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey being insulted by a staffer inside the Clinton White House, with the story ending with the supposed female staffer snapping, "I don't speak to military people." Except the truth of the story was that the incident happened outside the White House gates, on Pennsylvania Avenue across from Lafayette Park, McCaffrey hadn't retired yet and was in full uniform (as he told me himself in 1998), and the woman in question was one of the permanent class of protesters who have gathered there for years. As usual, this didn't stop the Limbaughs (and later, the Matt Drudges) from inflating the story into something that bore no resemblance to reality. But then again, what one hears on talk radio rarely does.
National Republican campaigns always seem to operate within a historical vacuum. Even eight years after Bill Clinton left office, still the GOP occasionally trots out the lame argument that he "destroyed" the military, even as stories emerge monthly about the poor support for the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their poor treatment in veterans hospitals. Despite regular reminders of the misfeasance, malfeasance, and abuse of active-duty military by George W. Bush's administration via the blazing incompetence of Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, the talking points put out by the Republican National Committee always purport that their party wasn't the one in charge during the last two wars and seven years.
Already John McCain is putting out campaign ads capitalizing on his military service. One of his ads is titled "624787," his serial number when he was a Navy aviator, and at least five of his ads show him during his years in captivity in Vietnam.
But how do Republican rank-and-file voters reconcile this with the treatment they gave John Kerry, also a genuine war hero, four years ago? Despite three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a Bronze Star, national Republicans coordinated a smear campaign of lies so vicious that the term "Swift boating" has entered the political vernacular as a tactic of using blatant untruths to assail the character of an opponent.
Now, at the same time McCain is leveraging his military service, he has turned his back on active service members. Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia has sponsored a bipartisan measure (along with Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska) to expand the GI Bill that would promise a cost-free college education to today's military, similar to the one offered following World War II. McCain first claimed he hadn't read the bill, and then later said that it would cause too many enlistees to leave active duty, and that many benefits shouldn't apply to anyone who has served fewer than six years.
According to retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the Bush administration is backing McCain's objections to the Webb bill, saying that if the benefits are too good, the troops will choose to go to college rather than re-enlist--an argument that is laughable at its face, coming from the presidency that has turned "stop-loss" orders into a backdoor draft. It's hard to go to college when your president won't let you out of your service commitment long after you were supposed to leave.
This is what Republicans mean when they say they support the troops, no matter what comes out of their mouths, even during wartime. Lousy support when you're in, lousy benefits when you leave, and lousy medical care if you're injured. But it never stops them from wrapping themselves in the uniform and the flag when it comes to pretty pictures for the campaign trail (or as we found out five years ago this month, on the deck of an aircraft carrier).
Some years back, I received a letter from a reader who, after calling me a typical liberal, bet that I "had never served in the military." He presumed this because, of course, everybody knows that liberals hate the military--never mind all those veterans in Congress with the letter "D" following their names. I wrote back with my dates of service, telling him, "You lose."
One of these days, the American public is going to wake up and see that just because a candidate like McCain can talk a good game about the military, and show off his pictures from the Vietnam days, it doesn't mean life will get any better for troops serving now. Dick Cheney talked a great game about the military, too, despite the fact that during Vietnam he had "other priorities." It's funny how little has changed.
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