Last month, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) released a study titled “Military Campaigns: Veterans’ Endorsements and Presidential Elections.” The study analyzes how the tradition of retired military personnel publically supporting presidential candidates affects public views of the candidates and of the military. This practice dates back to the Civil War and became even more popular following World War II.
Information was gathered by CNAS using a survey on the presidential campaigns for President Obama and Governor Romney this year. Though the authors conclude that only a small boost in support results from military endorsements, “even minor boosts in support can matter in a tight election.”
Furthermore, the authors posit that such endorsements may negatively affect the public perception of the military in the long-term, which they claim strengthens the need to have endorsements by retired senior ranking officers become taboo.
Military endorsements are highly coveted in presidential campaigns. In this particular election, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney served in the military, so these endorsements seem to provide a sense of legitimacy for their national security credentials.
To provide some examples, Romney released an extensive list of over 300 retired military officers who support his candidacy. President Obama jumped on the opportunity to highlight his foreign policy efforts during the Democratic National Convention with an appearance by Admiral John Nathman (Ret.) and other veterans. This show of force was designed in part to counter the Romney-Ryan’s neglect to mention the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan during the Republican National Convention. Moreover, the President made even heavier use of retired military endorsements during his first run for national office in 2008.
One of the study’s authors, Peter Feaver, wrote an article on foreignpolicy.com about the study. He described how he and his fellow co-authors found that veteran endorsements made a statistically significant boost in support for President Obama, but not for Governor Romney. He attributed the reason to current public perception that our military is conservative and generally more aligned with the Republican Party due to the party’s “historical advantage” in matters of national security.
In the study, Feaver, James Golby, and Kyle Dropp emphasize that their main concern echoes civil-military experts who claim that the endorsements, especially by senior ranking veterans, “may damage perceptions of the military as a nonpartisan institution.” But the authors also claim that the general public perception is that the military is a conservative/Republican organization. So the bias already exists; it’s now simply becoming more balanced.
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The current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, and his predecessor have also spoken against this political involvement by retired senior officers. General Dempsey has repeatedly argued that, “when the title or uniform is used for partisan purposes, it can erode the trust relationship. We must all be conscious of this, or we risk adversely affecting the very profession to which we dedicated most of our adult life.”
Of course, there is a long history of ex-generals running for and winning the presidency, from George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower. If veterans are now supposed to be nonpartisan, should retired military officials be discouraged from running for presidential office as well?
Senior veterans have devoted a majority of their professional lives to serving our country. In dedicating their lives to serve the nation, they put aside their personal beliefs to follow the orders of the Commander in Chief and their superior officers. These years of experience have endowed them with deep insight and knowledge of issues of national security as highlighted by the titles they retain after retirement. As stated by Lt. General (USA, Ret.) Robert G. Gard, Jr., board chair of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, “Targeting veterans to muffle their freedom to endorse political candidates would deny them the full exercise of their first amendment rights as private citizens during retirement from military service.”
In addition to the endorsement of presidential candidates, retired military personnel like General Gard, take positions on issues of concern, such as use of land mines, nuclear weapons or torture. These individuals have profound knowledge of the effects of such issues and the public will benefit to hear them.
Announcing political endorsements is by no means isolated to retired veterans. Many other individuals and organizations endorse candidates. Religious leaders, scientists, newspapers, and even diplomats also exercise their political rights and support for candidates in the democratic process. It’s difficult to argue that action should be taken to regulate the degree to which they are politically active. For newspapers in particular, the practice of endorsements increases their perceived political bias which in turn causes readers to question their objectivity in reporting. But this bias can help spur a healthy debate and the in-depth analysis of issues necessary to become an informed voter.
Regardless, barring veterans or others to voice their opinions is guaranteed to be resisted, and for good reason.