President Carter, characterized as impotent for being unable to stop the Iranians from seizing Americans hostage, was soundly defeated by President Reagan, who entered office promising to restore American pride and military strength. Launching a massive nuclear build-up to confront the Soviet Union, Reagan’s name — and by extension, Republicans — became synonymous with national security.
Although he defeated President George H.W. Bush in 1992, Bill Clinton’s anti-Vietnam War activities and the perceived Democratic weakness were again central issues of that election. In 1992, I was a newly-minted Marine reservist, and I remember open and pervasive hatred throughout the Marine Corps towards President Clinton and Democrats in general. Until this day, many in the military believe the myth of Clinton downsizing and “gutting” the post-Cold War military. In reality, the process had begun under President Bush and was designed by his Defense Secretary, Dick Cheney. Once such perceptions are embedded, they are tough to uproot.
In the 2004 presidential race, Democrats lost on security yet again. Challenger John Kerry was a documented Vietnam War hero, and as a Senator, he had been a tireless advocate for Veterans. In contrast, President George W. Bush had hidden in the never-deployed Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth successfully painted Kerry as a spineless coward and President Bush won the 2004 Veterans’ vote 57% to 41%.
But to many in the military community, Republicans under President Bush were perhaps not the best stewards of our national security. For some, it was the 9-11 attacks on their watch. For some, it was abandoning the fight in Afghanistan, combined with the manipulations and outright lies dragging us into war in Iraq. For some, it was bungling the Iraq invasion, insurgency and then reconstruction. For others, it was the inability — and apparent lack of concern — to capture or kill bin Laden. Whatever the reason, by 2008 the American people had soured on Republicans’ vision of national security.
In 2008, the GOP nominated Senator John McCain, a bona fide war hero, partly in the hopes of reclaiming the mantle of strong national security. However, Senator Barack Obama pledged not just to withdraw responsibly from Iraq, but to double-down in Afghanistan. He stood firm on crushing al Qaeda and taking out Osama bin Laden — even in Pakistan, if necessary. So although the Military community continued favoring Republicans, they showed more comfort with Obama than with past Democrats: McCain won their vote 54% to 44%.
Over the past four years, President Obama has consistently emphasized the importance of national security and Veterans. He withdrew successfully from Iraq, more than doubled our forces in Afghanistan and prepared the hand-off to Afghan security forces. He didn’t just kill bin Laden, he shattered al Qaeda’s leadership globally.
Back home, caring for Veterans and military families has been one of the First Lady’s leading causes, enlisting corporations across the U.S. to focus on hiring returned Veterans. The president himself has addressed – and unilaterally refocused over $100 million on combating — Traumatic Brain Injury, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the plague of suicides afflicting our active duty and Veteran communities alike.
In stark contrast to the previous eight years of Republican rule, the Obama administration has improved our national security and upheld the sacred trust it owes our troops. Active duty military, Veterans and their families — along with the rest of America — have taken notice. Virginia holds the nation’s seventh-largest Veteran population and the second-largest active duty military population. Last Tuesday half of those in Virginia who have served in the military voted for the Democratic candidate for president. This isn’t necessarily a permanent re-alignment of the military community’s views of politics. But it clearly is a testament to how President Obama and his administration has fundamentally transformed American perceptions of Democrats, and given them an opening to become the new party of national security.
Morgenstein served two tours as a Marine Corps Officer in Iraq and as a civilian in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is currently a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and is a non-resident fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMorgen.