By Ben Adler
Charlotte, N.C. — Last week, the Republican National Convention made it abundantly clear what their message was each night. Tuesday was “We Built It!”—a rejoinder to President Obama’s mythical admonishment to business executives that their companies were built by government, not their own labor. Wednesday was “We Can Change it!,” and Thursday was Mitt Romney’s biographical night.
The Democratic convention has not offered any such clear nightly agendas. But that’s by design, says the Obama campaign. ”Our themes will be weaved throughout all the nights,” campaign spokesman Brent Colburn said at a briefing Tuesday. And as an example of a recurrent theme, Colburn pointed to veterans and the military.
Among the military or vet-themed events:
• Tuesday will feature speeches from Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy (retired), the first woman to reach the rank of three-star general in the U.S. Army, and Tammy Duckworth, a wounded Iraq War vet, candidate for Congress from Illinois and former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
• First Lady Michelle Obama, also speaking Tuesday, will be introduced by Elaine Brye of Winona, Ohio—a mother of five children, four of whom are each currently serving in a different branch of the armed forces.
• On Wednesday, there will be a video honoring veterans as “American Heroes,” along with speeches from veterans advocate Ed Meagher, who served in the Air Force, and from Veterans Administration Secretary, Gen. Erik Shinseki (retired).
• On Thursday, Sen. John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, will discuss foreign policy.
Why the focus on veterans? Democrats believe that President Obama’s strong record on veterans’ affairs should enable him to make inroads with the usually Republican-leaning voting bloc.
“He ended the Iraq War responsibly, fully funded the Veterans Administration for the first time in years, and put resources into mental health, which was ignored in previous administrations,” Mike Evans, an Army veteran, chair of the Missouri chapter of Veterans for Obama, and a DNC alternate delegate, said in an interview Monday evening. Evans also noted that Obama has opened up access to rural health centers so that veterans—who are often disabled and poor—do not have to drive hundreds of miles for health services. And, Evans pointed out, Obama has created a tax credit for companies that hire unemployed veterans.
Those accomplishments are all real enough. But you might notice something missing from this list: the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military polls well with the general public, but could it turn off some military or veteran voters? Evans asserts that it won’t be a liability for Obama. But that, as well as the cuts to defense spending required by the sequestration process, could provide lines of attack for Republicans.
Still, veterans are a large and important constituency in many swing states. Missouri has over 600,000 veterans, and if Obama is to put it in play—something Democrats think is more possible since Todd Akin, running as a Republican for the Senate from the state, claimed rape victims cannot get pregnant—veteran outreach could be essential to Obama’s chances. That’s why veterans will be a recurring theme this week in Charlotte.