The Military vs. the GOP

Are they falling out of love?

Is the love affair between the military and the GOP coming to an end? For years it’s been a given that the military is an eternally Republican constituency. Republicans, after all, want to spend more money on defense than Democrats do, and military bases are located disproportionately in the South and the West, two GOP strongholds. There are obvious cultural affinities between the military and the Republicans’ traditional image as the party of manly discipline, as opposed to the Democrats’ traditional image as the party of maternal indulgence. The military is a naturally conservative constituency, and it’s one that votes: In a 1997 Atlantic Monthly piece, Thomas E. Ricks, defense reporter for the Washington Post (and—full disclosure—a Chatterbox friend), noted that servicemen and women produced a higher voter turnout than the public at large. Numbering 5.3 million (if you include civilians, National Guard, Reserves, and retirees) that’s not a bad-sized interest group.

But Chatterbox has lately noticed signs of growing military disenchantment with this Republican administration. Individually, they might not mean much, but collectively, they could be the start of a new realignment. Consider the behavior of and reactions to the following four key figures:

Donald Rumsfeld. The military has never taken much of a shine to Rumsfeld. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Rumsfeld positioned himself as a reformer of the Pentagon’s bureaucratic culture. His attitude is summed up this way in Midge Decter’s hagiographic new minibiography, Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait:

[w]ithout civilian control the military, especially the staff of the joint chiefs, inevitably became the managers of their own affairs. This came more and more to mean that military promotions were determined on the basis not of ability but of congeniality with one’s fellows.

The military, on the other hand, viewed Rumsfeld as a bull in a china shop—an arrogant meddler in matters about which he knew little.

Sept. 11 mooted this particular conflict by forcing Rumsfeld and the uniformed military to mobilize for war. Three years later, though, Rumsfeld is once again a reviled figure in the military because of his stubborn insistence that more troops will not be needed in Iraq. (Rumsfeld has also been criticized for placing what his former Army secretary, Thomas White, refers to in his new book, Reconstructing Eden, as “artificial caps placed on troop strength in Afghanistan,” which, he says, have “led to a tenuous security situation.”) The Army National Guard and the Reserves are up in arms over a new policy requiring them to serve yearlong tours in Iraq, and some of their family members are circulating a petition demanding they return sooner.

Wesley Clark. Clark has taken flak from other candidates for being a Johnny-come-lately to the Democratic Party: He voted for Reagan, praised George W. Bush, etc., before entering the Democratic nomination race. But this misses an important point: Almost never before in the modern era has a politically ambitious high-ranking military officer found it desirable, even from a purely careerist perspective, to associate himself with the Democrats. * An important taboo has been broken.

Anthony Zinni. The former U.S. commander for the Middle East had this to say in a speech earlier this month:

This administration came in with an idea of transforming the military into something—God knows what—lighter, smaller, quicker, whatever. The bill payer was going to be ground units, heavy units. And now we have a shortage of exactly what we needed out there. … [W]hen we put [American soldiers] into harm’s way, it had better count for something. It can’t be because some policy wonk back here has a brain fart of an idea of a strategy that isn’t thought out. They should never be put on a battlefield without a strategic plan, not only for the fighting—our generals will take care of that—but for the aftermath and winning that war. Where are we, the American people, if we accept this, if we accept this level of sacrifice without that level of planning? Almost everyone in this room, of my contemporaries—our feelings and our sensitivities were forged on the battlefields of Vietnam; where we heard the garbage and the lies, and we saw the sacrifice. We swore never again would we do that. We swore never again would we allow it to happen. And I ask you, is it happening again?

Gen. John Shillingsworth. Not, strictly speaking, a real person. He’s the Army chief of staff in Ricks’$2 2001 novel, A Soldier’s Duty. The book was written well before Ricks had any idea that George W. Bush would become president, but he put into an interior monologue for Shillingsworth words that resonate two years later: “In those first few months of the Shick administration he had decided that the only thing worse than a liberal formed by the ‘60s was a conservative formed in reaction to the ‘60s.”

Chatterbox doesn’t mean to suggest that a majority of military voters will pull the lever for Democrats in the next election. But he does think Republicans would be foolish to assume they’ve got this vote locked up through the next decade.

Corr ection, Oct. 2, 2003: An earlier version of this column stated that this “never” occurred previously in the modern era. That overlooked Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, who in 1976 ran for the Senate in Virginia as a Democrat. (Return to the corrected sentence.)