Veterans were a critical part of the DNC’s strategy to take back the House of Representatives last November. However, while military service has historically been a necessary qualification for being president, modern presidential candidates haven’t always been able to leverage this status to gain the public’s admiration (think John KerryJohn Kerry9/11 and US-China policy: The geopolitics of distraction Australia's duty to the world: Stop mining coal Overnight Energy & Environment — Effort to repeal Arctic refuge drilling advances MORE). That hasn’t stopped Gabbard and Mayor Pete from trying — with the Fourth of July weekend in full swing,
Gabbard and Buttigieg are seeking to standout from a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls. President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE’s military parade and the Fourth’s usual swell of patriotism mean an increased focus on the military in the news cycle and in towns across America. In preparation, the veteran candidates have spent the last two weeks touting their military backgrounds and sending a message that is anti-war but not anti-soldier.
Last week’s two-part Democratic debate featured Gabbard on Wednesday and Buttigieg on Thursday, which meant that each candidate had the opportunity to be the only veteran on stage (Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonHow lawmakers aided the Afghan evacuation GOP lawmaker says he did not threaten US Embassy staff in Tajikistan House panel approves B boost for defense budget MORE of Massachusetts, also a vet, never made the cut).
During Wednesday night’s round-one, Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardProgressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal Hillicon Valley: US has made progress on cyber but more needed, report says | Democrat urges changes for 'problematic' crypto language in infrastructure bill | Facebook may be forced to unwind Giphy acquisition YouTube rival Rumble strikes deals with Tulsi Gabbard, Glenn Greenwald MORE held an especially unique position: not only was she one of three women (a historic number), she is a post-9/11 combat veteran. In a country that has historically left women’s military contributions unacknowledged, particularly those related to frontline combat, Gabbard’s break out night was aided in no small part by references to her experience.
Gabbard did not hold back, relating her military service to a host of topics critical to the Democratic Party platform. She referenced her military background when discussing LGBTQ issues stating, “I’ve served with LGBTQ service members.
I know they would give their life for me and I would give my life for them.” She referenced her service with regard to foreign policy stating, “this is why it is so important to have a president...who knows the cost of war.” Whether in question answers, follow-ups posed to her by the moderators, or when she jumped in on another candidate’s responses, Gabbard mentioned her time as a soldier.
The morning after the debate, Gabbard’s campaign team doubled down on her strategy with an email titled: The Taliban Didn’t Attack us on 9/11.
In that email, the campaign noted, “of all the candidates on last night’s debate stage, Tulsi showed that she’s best prepared to lead as commander-in-chief on day 1. With her signature composure… [s]he showed us what it would mean to have a combat veteran and experienced voice of foreign policy in the White House.”
During Thursday night’s round-two, Buttigieg took a slightly different approach noting his service more sparingly. In reference to a question about gun control, Buttigieg stated that, “many weapons of war have no place in American neighborhoods.” He also used his closing statement to link his military background with preparedness for the presidency stating, “nothing about politics is theoretical for me.” While he didn’t have, or take, as many opportunities as Gabbard to tout his service on the debate stage, it is a feature in his stump speech, especially his time in Afghanistan. He’s repeatedly noted that 9/11 shapes his foreign policy outlook stating that, “war came to our generation.”
Though Gabbard made more mentions than Buttigieg, both used their military service to advance an anti-war agenda while maintaining their support for the armed forces as an institution. That stance should connect well with the Democratic base, especially after two U.S. soldiers died just last week in a firefight in Afghanistan. President Trump loves to put U.S. military power on display. His controversial parade and frequent tussles with Iran have created a space for Gabbard and Buttigieg to offer a more peaceful alternative.
Whether or not military service will aid Democratic presidential candidates the way it helped 2018 Democratic House candidates remains to be seen. Strategically, the strongest case for nominating a Democratic veteran is an electability argument. Veteran status helped Democratic House candidates the most in purple districts. This could be true for the Democratic presidential nominees as well. With Americans feeling patriotic this holiday weekend, Gabbard and Buttigieg can use their veteran status to send the message that they are ready to take on President Trump and compete in swing states.
Beyond strategy, it’s worth nothing that veterans are more bipartisan than other elected officials on average and that the story of the post-9/11 generation is indeed a story shaped by war. Buttigieg and Gabbard have few similarities in substance or style, but both are uniquely positioned to disrupt the narrative of Democrats as anti-military weaklings.
While we’re all feeling the pride for the red, white, and blue this Fourth of July weekend, their message of sacrifice is a valuable one. Especially in the context of our bellicose and unpredictable commander-in-chief, both candidates are seeking to remind us of the importance of military service as an unofficial qualification for the presidency.
Heather James is an assistant professor of Political Science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY) and former campaign professional. Her research focuses on women, campaign finance and campaigns. She’s conducted 100s of interviews with female candidates and campaign professionals from all over the United States. Stephanie Szitanyi is an assistant dean at the New School and an adjunct instructor at Marymount Manhattan College. She holds a PhD in Political Science from Rutgers University and her forthcoming book is titled "Gender Trouble in U.S. Military: Challenges to Regimes of Male Privilege."