Why Democrats love the military.


It was a cold night in December, and Patrick Murphy was standing in
the back room of a downtown Philadelphia bar. As usual, he was
telling war stories. It had been nearly two years since Murphy
returned from Iraq, where he served as a JAG officer in the 82nd
Airborne, but the memories of his time there were still fresh, and,
as he mingled about the room, he shared them with many of those he
met. He told of leading convoys through a section of Baghdad called
"Ambush Alley" and of prosecuting cases before Iraq's Central
Criminal Court. "When I was in Iraq," Murphy would almost
invariably say at the outset of each new conversation--and then he
would launch into another tale.But, even though his stories grew repetitious, no one seemed to
mind. Far from perceiving Murphy as a bore, his interlocutors
listened to him with rapt attention. They were mostly young
professionals, just off work from nearby law firms and corporate
offices, and, in their world, Murphy was a unique figure and
someone of considerable interest. "I don't think I know anybody
who's fought in Iraq, except maybe my friend's brother," a
twentysomething named Brian Gralnick, who works for the
Pennsylvania Department of Aging, told me not long after Murphy had
bent his ear. "Just to hear the perspective of someone who's
actually been there and has that kind of credibility is extremely

So valuable, in fact, that he and the other people in the bar's back
room were willing to pay for the privilege--with a suggested

$50 contribution to Murphy's congressional campaign. Murphy is
running in Pennsylvania's eighth district, which is made up almost
entirely of Bucks County, home to some of Philadelphia's most
affluent suburbs. Although Murphy is only 32 years old and has no
prior political experience (save a brief stint as a volunteer for
John Kerry in 2004), he is considered by many to be the
front-runner in the three-candidate Democratic primary; and, if he
wins the primary in May, political handicappers believe Murphy
would pose a legitimate challenge in November to the one-term
Republican incumbent, Mike Fitzpatrick. With more than $260,000 in
contributions--the event at the bar, which was hosted by
Philadelphia's Young Democratic Networking Corps, netted about
$5,000- -Murphy is off to an impressive start for a challenger in
that district.

Murphy is stumping on a familiar litany of Democratic campaign
issues, from raising the minimum wage to supporting a woman's right
to choose. But the centerpiece of his campaign is Iraq. "To win the
war on terror," Murphy likes to say, "we need to get the hell out
of Iraq." Specifically, he has called for the removal of all
National Guard and Reserve units by the summer and the withdrawal
of 50,000 additional troops by the year's end. And, for those who
may disagree with his plan--including the Republican representative
he hopes to unseat--Murphy's response is simple. He touts his
personal experience. "Mike Fitzpatrick, no matter how many
briefings he can sit in on in Washington, D.C., will never know
what I know, and I know the truth," Murphy told me. "I've seen it
with my own eyes. I walked it in my own combat boots."

Murphy isn't the only Democratic congressional candidate telling war
stories these days. Eight other veterans of the Iraq war are
running for the U.S. House of Representatives as Democrats (so far,
only one Iraq war vet, Van Taylor, a challenger for Texas's 17th
congressional district, is running as a Republican). And, while
there are differences among these Democratic veteran candidates,
like Murphy, they have all made their military service a central
facet of their campaigns--and have relied on it to bolster their
criticisms, which vary in intensity, of the war and the Bush
administration in general.

This development has sparked considerable excitement among the
Democratic faithful, who believe that the vet candidates are
uniquely equipped to solve the perception that their party is not
only weak on national security, but also that it is weak when it
comes to battling Republicans on other issues. Dubbed the "Fighting
Dems" or "Macho Democrats," the Iraq war vets--and more than 40
other Democratic candidates who are veterans of the Armed
Forces--are routinely hailed on popular liberal blogs; they are
featured on Air America radio shows; and, last month, the Band of
Brothers 2006 PAC was formed with a goal of raising

$3 million to support Democratic veterans running for office this
year. "A macho Democrat," John Lapp, the executive director of the
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, recently told
Newsweek, "is someone who isn't afraid to stand up for what they
believe in, to tell their story, to fight back when they're
unfairly attacked."

The Fighting Dem phenomenon would seem to be a welcome development
for a party that, for many years, was indifferent--or even
hostile--to the military. But it's not the panacea some Democrats
think it is. Just as Democrats were once wrong to demonize
veterans, unfairly casting them as villains, today Democrats are
making the mistake of fetishizing vets--unthinkingly treating them
as superheroes. And, just as the former view harmed Democrats on
national security issues, the latter may as well. Because new
national security messengers--no matter how many miles they may
have walked in combat boots--are no substitute for a strong
national security message, which the party, alas, still lacks.

The Democrats' problems with the military go back, of course, to
Vietnam, when the party became identified with the antiwar
movement, which often took the form of being anti-GI. But the
problems did not end with the war. Although Jimmy Carter himself
had served in the Navy, his presidency only deepened Democrats'
estrangement from the military. In 1977, Carter's inaugural address
notably failed to mention the Armed Forces, which upset some
veterans. Even more were upset when, the day after his inaugural,
the new president offered an amnesty to all those Americans who had
avoided service in Vietnam by failing to register for the draft or
by fleeing to Canada. "Carter cut the military budget, he canceled
the B-1 bomber," says Richard Kohn, a military historian at the
University of North Carolina. "In many ways, great and small, he did
things that were perceived as being hostile to the military."

At the same time that Democrats were alienating the military and
veterans, Republicans were reaching out. In 1980, Ronald Reagan
proclaimed that the U.S. effort in Vietnam "was, in truth, a noble
cause"--a proclamation that was much appreciated by many veterans.
In contrast to Carter, Reagan's inaugural address was a paean to
the American soldier. And, a few months later, in a speech to
sailors, he said, "I know there've been times when the military has
been taken for granted. It won't happen under this administration."
He boosted defense spending and gave soldiers a pay raise. "Under
Reagan, the Republican Party made itself the pro-military, and,
synonymously, the prosoldier, party," says Andrew Bacevich, a
professor of international relations at Boston University.

And, even when Democrats later tried to combat the perception that
they were anti-veteran and anti-military--such as when Michael
Dukakis, in 1988, took his infamous tank ride--they failed
miserably. Similarly, Bill Clinton's hawkish pronouncements in the
1992 presidential campaign were undercut by the revelation that, in
1969, he had proclaimed himself to be among the "many fine people
[who] have come to find themselves still loving their country but
loathing the military." And, when Clinton, upon being elected, said
he intended to repeal the ban on gays in the military, many
veterans interpreted it as a hostile act. The widely circulated
story that a female White House staffer had refused to exchange
pleasantries with then-Lieutenant General Barry McCaffrey because
she didn't "speak to people in uniform"--combined with the fact that
so few people in Clinton's inner circle had themselves served--only
deepened the notion that the Democratic Party was inherently
hostile to the military.

Ironically, though, it was also under Clinton that the Democratic
Party began to fetishize the military. Recognizing the political
liabilities stemming from his efforts to avoid service in Vietnam,
in his 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton took the unprecedented
step of seeking--and receiving--the endorsement of some 20 retired
military officers, including former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral
William Crowe. The scale of the endorsements violated the
long-standing norm that military leaders stay out of partisan
politics. And, after his initial missteps with the military early
in his first term, Clinton sought to make amends, caving on his
demand for the military to admit gays, appointing McCaffrey drug
czar, hailing the military for its affirmative action policies, and
generally taking a more respectful--even a sometimes
deferential--attitude toward the military. "I think he was so badly
bruised by the gays in the military issue," says Kohn, "that he
decided then and there that he wasn't going to fool with the
military and even exercise his authority over it in many ways."

But the Democratic Party's fetishization of the military did not
begin, in earnest, until the Iraq war. Much of it stemmed from a
basic political calculation--that the party would have more
credibility on the war if its leaders themselves had military
experience. This sentiment was what led many Democrats to encourage
the retired General Wesley Clark to run for president and, after
Clark flamed out, to embrace John Kerry--primarily because of his
own record of service in Vietnam. And Kerry, of course, carried the
fetish to its extreme when he turned the 2004 Democratic National
Convention into a militaristic extravaganza--cramming the stage
with admirals and generals who had endorsed him, not to mention the
men who had served with him on a swift boat in Vietnam. And, when
Kerry gave his acceptance speech, he began it with a salute and the
words, "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty."

This fetishization of the military has influenced the Democrats'
narrative of the Iraq war. "I think there was a segment of the
Democratic Party and the Democratic constituency who really blamed
military leaders for what happened in Vietnam, for lying about the
body count and the Pentagon papers and things like that," says
Chris Gelpi, a Duke University political scientist who studies
civilmilitary relations. But, when it comes to criticizing the Iraq
war, instead of blaming the military, Democrats have placed the
blame squarely on the Bush administration. In fact, in the
Democratic narrative of the war, the military is the hero. It was a
military man, General Eric Shinseki, who told the truth when he
said the United States would need several hundred thousand troops
to provide security in postwar Iraq; it was a Pentagon civilian,
Paul Wolfowitz, who lied and said the military was off the mark.
That Wolfowitz and so many of the war's other intellectual
architects had never served in the military themselves--that they
were, as Democrats never tire of pointing out, "chicken
hawks"--made this narrative particularly powerful.

As Republicans once did during the Reagan years, Democrats began to
cast themselves as protectors of the military. In 2003,
congressional Democrats accused the Bush administration of favoring
tax cuts for the wealthy over a pay raise for the military; and,
recently, Democrats have been attacking the Bush administration for
not providing soldiers in Iraq with adequate body armor. "It is not
only wrong, but it is inexcusable, as we near the third anniversary
of the war in Iraq, that our troops still do not have all the body
armor they need to keep them safer," House Minority Leader Nancy
Pelosi said. But, where Republicans like Reagan always cast their
defense of the military in terms of profound gratitude and respect,
Democrats' calls for increased support for the military--while no
doubt well-intentioned--sometimes leave the impression that they
almost view the military as pitiable. As Kathy Roth-Douquet, a
former Clinton aide and Marine wife who is the author of a
forthcoming book about the upper-class absence from the military,
puts it, "There is a contingent of Democrats whose version of being
pro-military is, `I appreciate what you do. I'd never do it myself.
I'd never want my kids to do it. But thanks for your service,
because you're probably being exploited, and you're a victim, and
we really want to help you.'"

This notion that those in the military have been victimized is very
much of a piece with the increasing tendency among some Democrats
to view national security issues through the lens of identity
politics. Just as some Democrats argue that oppressed minorities
like blacks or Latinos have unimpeachable credibility about certain
issues due to their identities, some Democrats now seem to think
that veterans have similarly unimpeachable views about national
security merely because of who they are. Indeed, many of the
Fighting Dems' biggest boosters seem to believe that a politician's
military service, or lack thereof, is the sine qua non of national
security issues. "Too few Republicans have ever sacrificed for
their nation, and their utter contempt for it shows," Markos
Moulitsas recently wrote on his blog, DailyKos. "Democrats are
already the party of veterans. The Fighting Dems are going to help
make this point to a whole new generation of voters."

Given the public mood on Iraq, criticizing the war may turn out to
be a winning midterm election strategy--at least in some districts.
And it probably can't hurt a candidate who has served in the
military to bolster that criticism with references to his or her
service. But the Fighting Dem strategy, and the Democratic
fetishization of the military in general, does pose some potential

First, despite all the swaggering rhetoric about Fighting Dems,
there's no evidence that fighting in a war means someone will be a
fighter in the political arena. Recent history is littered with a
number of war heroes-turned- politicians whose fierceness in
military combat did not carry over onto the political battlefield.
John McCain did not have the stomach to get down and dirty with
George W. Bush in the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary. John
Kerry similarly failed to fight back against the Swift Boat Veterans
for Truth. Indeed, in three out of the last four presidential
elections, the candidate who saw combat in war (George H.W. Bush,
Bob Dole, and Kerry) lost to an opponent (Clinton and George W.
Bush) who had avoided it.

But the biggest danger posed by the Fighting Dems is the notion that
their personal experience alone is a substitute for a strong
national security agenda. Democrats seem to believe that, if they
put Pelosi's words in a veteran's mouth, they will have formulated
a winning national security message. As Democratic strategist Joe
Trippi wrote last week, shortly after Howard Dean declared that the
Iraq war was unwinnable, "Perhaps Dems should let Murtha and `Iraq
Vet' candidates like Paul Hackett and Patrick Murphy use their
considerable credibility to make the anti-war case, while Howard
Dean and others come up with some appealing vision for the future."
But, if the message remains the same, it won't matter who's saying

Or it won't matter to people who, unlike most of the Fighting Dems'
biggest boosters, know enough to view the military as the province
not of superheroes but of mere mortals. Which is something Murphy
found out when, the day after enthralling the young Democrats in
downtown Philadelphia, he stopped by a steelworkers' union hall in
Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, a blue-collar town in lower Bucks

The son of a cop who grew up in a working-class Philadelphia
neighborhood, Murphy is hardly uncomfortable in such environments.
"None of my friends growing up went to college," he told me before
he went into the union hall. "They're Teamsters now." And, when a
steelworker offered Murphy his choice of a bottle of Yuengling or a
can of Miller, he correctly chose the latter. As he sat drinking
his beer, the steelworkers voiced their concerns about cafta and
told stories of the Molly McGuires, the secret organization of Irish
American coal miners who fought discrimination through violence.
Finally, one of them asked Murphy how he planned to beat

For Murphy, almost every issue he confronts in his campaign leads
him back to Iraq. "People say to me, `You're so young. You're just
32 years old,' and I say, `Well, I think I'll actually bring a
whole other set of experiences [to Congress],'" he told me earlier
that day. "I'll be one of the leading experts on the war on terror,
because I did deploy to help a Muslim population in Bosnia and also
in Baghdad, Iraq." He and his campaign even try to connect issues
that have nothing to do with national security to his military
experience. As Daren Berringer, a Democratic consultant who has been
serving as an unpaid adviser to Murphy's campaign, puts it, "If
Patrick can go over to Iraq and perform his job as well as he did
in that environment, then I'm pretty sure he can deal with issues
of education and health care and making sure seniors have a real
prescription-drug plan. That stuff is on paper."

And so, when a steelworker asked Murphy an openended question about
how he planned to get to Congress, Murphy's answer wasn't
surprising. "I know how to fight," he replied immediately. "I was
in the 82nd Airborne. I was in Baghdad. I'm a fighter." He started
to go on, perhaps to tell the story of running convoys or maybe to
talk about the roadside bombs he had survived to see, but one of
the steelworkers cut him off.

"This isn't Baghdad," the man told Murphy in an impatient tone.
"This is a different thing. It doesn't matter if you know how to
fight. What matters is you know how to be smart."

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