A lot of Republicans are talking about how the 2012 election may be one of the most important elections in a generation. In full fairness to them, I’d say that the party that doesn’t have possession of the White House says that after just about every election. So I’ll pay them lip service to that particular point. I take it as neither true nor false. It just is.
What makes the 2012 election truly interesting is the direction of certain trends in recent presidential elections. Whatever else you might think of the outcomes of any or all of the past five presidential elections, the candidate who had less military service, was the one who emerged victorious. To illustrate this point, here are the results:
1992: Bill Clinton (no formal military service. His number wasn’t picked in the draft lottery) defeated George H. W. Bush (WWII combat veteran).
1996: Bill Clinton (same as above) defeated Bob Dole (WWII combat veteran)
2000: George W. Bush (reached Lieutenant in the National Guard; never saw combat) defeated Al Gore (Vietnam veteran; photographer alongside Army combat battallioin)
2004: George W. Bush (same as above) defeated John Kerry (Vietnam combat veteran)
2008: Barack Obama (no formal military service; never enrolled in military; too young even to be drafted) defeated John McCain (Vietnam combat veteran and POW)
Once or twice is a curiosity. Three times is an anomaly. Five times in a row, that’s a trend, pure and simple.
Barack Obama is likely going to be unchallenged for the Democratic nomination, so let’s look at the Republicans. There’s been a flurry of activity of late among potential candidates who are probably going to seek the nomination of their party to challenge President Obama. Factoring out those people who have specifically said they’re not running, I see eight otherwise plausible candidates for the Republican nomination. In alphabetical order by last name, they are:
- Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minnesota)
- Ex-Rep. Newt Gingrich (Georgia)
- Ex-Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr (Utah)
- Ex-Gov. Sarah Palin (Alaska)
- Rep. Ron Paul (Texas)
- Ex-Gov. Tim Pawlenty (Minnesota)
- Ex-Gov. Mitt Romney (Massachusetts)
- Ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (Pennsylvania)
(Note that, of the above, the only candidates who have formally announced their candidacies as of May 23, 2011, are Gingrich, Paul, and Pawlenty; the others have either taken actions that indicate at least an interest in seeking the presidency and/or are talked about often enough and haven’t formally ruled out running.)
What is interesting about the entire list of eight candidates above, not a single one of them has any formal military service.
It, therefore, is almost a given that the 2012 election will give voters a choice between two candidates with no military service, so a trend of five straight elections is going to turn into six almost by default.
This is, of course, a sign of nothing other than where we stand in our nation’s history. World War II ended 66 years ago. Since then, we’ve had a significant number of extended military incursions (Korea, Vietnam, the First Gulf War, The Second Gulf War, Afghanistan, and smaller-scale skirmishes in Cambodia, Laos, Beirut, Granada, and Somalia, to name a few). So there’s no shortage of chances for military veterans to seek the presidency. Since the end of Vietnam 36 years ago, though, all of our military exploits have been done with an entirely volunteer army. And that might make a tremendous difference.
Within the past generation or so, the military has, for lack of a better term, become less visible within American life. That’s not to say it hasn’t been active, but a reduced visibility (which can be a direct consequence of not having a draft) has resulted in the trend within which we now stand. And this is a first in American history. We have had elections where the candidate with less military service emerged victorious, but, notwithstanding the re-election of that candidate, it wasn’t really a trend. Not like what we have now.
And I think that trend will likely continue until we have a larger-scale war that requires the re-initiation of a draft. I’m not favoring that kind of thing, but it is likely the only thing that would completely reverse the trend.