Veterans in Vogue
Candidates with wartime service making a comeback.
Sometime in the not too distant future, Congress will witness a momentous event. The last of the nine remaining World War II veterans will pass from the House or Senate, marking the first time in more than a half-century that the national legislature will be without the perspective of a veteran from that historic conflict.
The Greatest Generation's impending congressional exit has not gone unnoticed. Veterans groups and scholars who study legislative behavior began wondering about its impact back in the 1990s, when the declining number of military veterans in Congress-from all eras-first attracted attention. Today, only a quarter of Congress can claim military service, down from a postwar high of nearly 80 percent in the 1970s.
The war in Iraq, however, might end up altering that downward trend. Its highly politicized nature has sparked a boomlet of veteran candidacies in 2006 as Democrats, in particular, have aggressively recruited vets to run for office as part of an effort to counter charges that the party is weak on national security.
Depending on their success rate, this class of candidates could have a significant effect on American military and foreign policy, not to mention veterans affairs. Perhaps not in equal measure to the huge and influential World War II cohort, but in ways that could be felt for years to come.
In both 2002 and 2004, the newly elected House and Senate freshmen classes included less than a dozen vets. This year, though, depending on primary election results, there could be as many as 75 to 100 military vets on the congressional ballot. Many of these candidates, it should be noted, are long shots. But enough of them are in competitive races to make it likely that the Class of 2006 will include more than enough veterans to replace the 10 who are retiring from Congress this year.
The most senior among these candidates are Vietnam War veterans, whose views on the use of force overseas-and the aims of civilian policymakers-were forged in a far more cynical theater than World War II. The same might be said of the most junior veterans, a handful of whom are fresh from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The newcomers would be different from the WWII and Korean War-era veterans in another way: Many of them entered the military as college graduates and served as officers, in contrast to their predecessors who often attended college after discharge with the assistance of the G.I. Bill.
It's impossible to say with any certainty whether those dissimilar experiences will make a difference in their voting habits. But if nothing else, this class of warrior candidates could force both political parties to recalibrate their approaches on a broad range of issues.
Since more than half are Democrats, in the event of a Democratic tidal wave in November the party would suddenly find itself with a much-needed infusion of credibility on military and national security issues. Republicans, who constitute roughly 60 percent of the veterans in Congress, would suddenly find it much more difficult to dismiss the opposition as soft on defense or reflexively anti-military.
But keep in mind that a Democratic majority with a newly enlarged contingent of veterans is an unstable one. If Democrats take control of Congress, it will be due to the resurgence of the party's liberal wing as much as its veterans' strategy-and that faction might be disappointed to discover the one trait that veterans of all eras have always shared: a commitment to robust defense spending.