During a campaign trip through the swing state of Ohio this week, President George Bush greeted Air Force reservists at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, shaking hands on the flight line with the troops. Last week, the president visited a planeload of reservists headed for a year of combat duty in Iraq. Both visits garnered plenty of media attention. What gives? Can President Bush campaign with troops whenever he wants?
That depends how you define “campaign.” Generally speaking, the president can visit the troops at almost any time in his capacity as commander in chief of the armed forces. And while military installations are typically not allowed to host political campaign events such as rallies or town-hall meetings, fundraisers, or press conferences, this prohibition doesn’t apply to the president, vice president, or speaker of the House of Representatives. But the Pentagon does have rules governing such visits. (They’re issued every election cycle by the Defense secretary.) When the president holds events on base, the audience can’t wave political signs, and the stage must be barren of political material.
Members of Congress, like Sen. John Kerry and Sen. John Edwards, can also visit military installations during campaign season—but the rules governing their conduct on site are more restrictive. Candidates like Kerry can receive briefings, take facility tours, and meet with the troops, but they cannot hold rallies with the troops the way Bush and Cheney can. According to Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, “these members of Congress and other elected officials are in a ‘receive’ mode for briefings, tours, et cetera, when they are on base, not a ‘send’ mode.”
The Pentagon also has rules designed to keep a balance of information flowing to the troops. These rules prohibit internal magazines, newspapers, and publications—such as the venerated Stars & Stripes newspaper—from printing “information provided by a candidate’s campaign organization, partisan advertisements and discussions, or cartoons, editorials, and commentaries dealing with political campaigns or elections, candidates, causes, or issues.” Similarly, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s policy for this election year directs the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service to take “great care to provide news regarding political campaigns and elections absent political comment, analysis, or interpretation,” in order to let the troops decide for themselves who they want as their commander in chief for the next four years.
There’s also a Department of Defense directive that governs what the troops themselves can do during an election year—something that indirectly affects what candidates can do on a military base. Active-duty personnel can vote, contribute money to campaigns, and express their opinions about politics so long as they don’t purport to speak on behalf of the military. They may also attend political events like the Democratic National Convention or Republican National Convention, provided they do so in civilian clothes and don’t purport to represent the military in any way. However, active-duty military personnel cannot attend a political rally in uniform, conduct political fund raising on base, speak to partisan political gatherings, or otherwise act in a way that implies endorsement of a political party or candidate by the military. (If the president holds special, non-political events on base, soldiers may attend in uniform, while on duty.) The rules even say that an active-duty soldier cannot display a “large political sign, banner, or poster (as distinguished from a bumper sticker) on the top or side of a private vehicle.”
Explainer thanks Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.