Military service can help Gabbard and Buttigieg with undecided Democratic voters

Military service can help Gabbard and Buttigieg with undecided Democratic voters
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Foreign policy made headlines in the past few weeks: Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE’s congressional testimony stressed continuing Russian interference in U.S. elections. And Iran seized a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz earlier this month.

Both Mueller’s testimony and the tanker incident could help set the stage for more questions about foreign policy during round two of the Democratic debates. Though foreign policy received little coverage the first time around, CNN, the host of the upcoming debate has been doubling down on its criticisms of Trump’s interactions with the world. 

CNN gave prominent billing to Trump’s statement that he is “ready for the absolute worst” in regard to Iran. With the tanker still captured, and clips of Mueller’s testimony on Russian interference likely to be played on loop until night one of the debates, Democratic candidates will need to step up and prove that they are ready to be commander in chief. 


Two of the Democratic candidates hold a particular advantage on foreign policy and the possible expansion of American military intervention. Veteran mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegWhite House says gas tax won't be part of infrastructure bill The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden meets with bipartisan lawmakers for infrastructure negotiations Senate Republicans label Biden infrastructure plan a 'slush fund' MORE, who served in Afghanistan and Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardNew co-chairs named for congressional caucus for millennials Tulsi Gabbard blasts new House rules on gender neutral language as 'height of hypocrisy' A vaccine, a Burrito and more: 7 lighter, memorable moments from 2020 MORE (D-Hawaii), who served in Iraq and is still an active duty as a member of the Hawaii National Guard. Buttigieg and Gabbard have a more direct link to America’s military exploits than the other candidates. Further, military service tends to be associated with patriotism and foreign policy credibility, which may give them more space to address the issues in the headlines without alienating voters.

Since Gabbard and Buttigieg will take the debate stage on different nights, they won’t have the opportunity for a direct matchup. But with each of them being the only candidates with military experience on the debate stage each night, we expect that they will reference their service when speaking about foreign policy.  We’re making some predictions about what their answers will be based on how these two candidates referenced their military experience in the previous debate. 

Gabbard did not hold back in showcasing her military experience during the first debate. She referenced her post-9/11 combat service against a slew of topics important to the Democratic platform, including the LGBTQ+ movement; she’ll likely do the same this time around. 

She was seen as a surprise standout of the first debate and her team might hope that a similar performance will lead to another surge in the polls. Questions on Iran and other foreign policy topics will definitely lead to references of her combat experience. Gabbard is staunchly anti-war and uses foreign policy questions as opportunities to remind us that war’s “collateral damage” weighs heavily on the minds of those who serve and their family members. She’s also likely to tie her service to the hot button issue of immigration. Gabbard may use the tried-and-true tactic of discussing her service alongside soldiers of multiple religious and ethnic backgrounds.

A practicing Hindu who states that she is “of Asian, Polynesian, and Caucasian” heritage, Gabbard represents one of the least-white states in the union. She can use her time in combat to talk about the value of America’s diversity. Though Gabbard references her soldier status frequently, she’ll have to walk a fine line before she overdoes it. And as the field prepares to drastically narrow by September, voters will likely want to know what else — other than her military ties — make Gabbard the right candidate. 


Buttigieg has generally taken a less in-your-face approach to discussions of his service background — his history with the military is more complicated than Gabbard’s. 

He originally went to both Afghanistan and Iraq as a civilian contractor for the prominent consulting firm McKinsey & Company — a fact likely to be viewed with suspicion by the Democratic base. However, a Gabbard-like strategy may serve him well. He is also a young and inexperienced candidate. 

However, military service is one of the few areas where he has a longer resume than his fellow presidential-hopefuls. And as a trained Naval intelligence officer, he’ll have the unique opportunity to speak to the credibility of the work of the nation’s intelligence agencies, countering Trump’s verbal attacks on them. Buttigieg would be smart to mention his military background more directly as evidence of his fitness for the presidency.

Despite foreign policy being a major factor in U.S. policymaking, the average American voter doesn’t rank it as a key concern, but it's becoming harder to ignore. A foreign policy focus offers opportunities for Gabbard and Buttigieg to reference their service backgrounds and gain credibility with still-undecided Democratic voters.

Heather James is teaches political science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY) and the campus coordinator for CUNY's Edward T. Rogowsky internship program in government and public affairs. Her research work focuses on women, campaign finance and political parties. 

Stephanie Szitanyi is an assistant dean at the New School and an adjunct instructor at Marymount Manhattan College. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from Rutgers University. Her work has been published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics. Her research focuses on women in the military, female political representation and the militarization of American culture.