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Magic Bullet

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 twenty-something 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 valuable.

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 pro-soldier, 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 civil-military 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 problems.

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 it.

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 County.

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 Fitzpatrick.

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 open-ended 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.

This article appeared in the February 6, 2006 issue of the magazine.