By Ben Adler
Charlotte, N.C. — Democrats are serious about veterans issues and are pushing to elect more veterans to Congress. But do they have an effective strategy for convincing vets, traditionally a Republican-leaning group, to vote Democratic? A visit to the Veterans Caucus meeting at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday afternoon suggested that’s far from clear.
Speakers included three veterans running for Congress as Democrats, each of whom made the case that veterans are under-represented in Congress. (There are fewer vets currently serving in Congress than at any time since World War II). Some of the arguments were better than others. “We know what it’s like to serve in environments where failure is not an option,” offered Adam Cook, who’s running for Congress from Virginia, a vet-heavy state that also happens to be a key presidential swing state. How exactly that translates into casting better votes on legislation is unclear.
The better case by far came from Jay Chen, the Democratic candidate in California’s second congressional district. “We need to have people in Congress who understand the burden of war,” said Chen. He went on decry, to enthusiastic clapping, Republican efforts to claim the mantle of superior patriotism, when it’s they who have voted in recent years to put troops in harm’s way unnecessarily.
That sounds like a critique that could resonate with swing voters. Still, it’s worth remembering that in 2004 Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), a decorated Vietnam veteran, was successfully tarred as unpatriotic by George W. Bush, a draft dodger who went AWOL from the “Champagne brigade” of the Texas Air National Guard. Indeed, none of the speakers seemed to have a good idea how to address the political challenge that has bedeviled Democrats since George McGovern’s disastrous presidential campaign of 1972: how to convince voters that supporting military action is not the same as supporting the military.
Some, at least, offered messaging that tied military issues into one of the DNC’s other main themes: support for women’s rights. Chen mentioned the need to prevent rampant sexual assault in the military, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota boasted of having written a law that prevents the military from erasing records of sexual assault complaints.
It’s true that Democrats far outstrip the GOP when it comes to policies that would actually help vets, by helping them find health care, jobs, housing and education. But that’s long been true. If the party was hoping to Democratic vets into their communities with a more sophisticated strategy for swaying wavering voters, then this was a missed opportunity.