The Fightin' Dems

January 3, 2007 Topic: CongressDomestic PoliticsElectionsPolitics Regions: Americas Tags: Iraq War

The Fightin' Dems

Mini Teaser: Despite a seeming parade of veteran candidates, war-veteran Democrats didn’t take an inordinate number of seats this past election.

by Author(s): Brendan Conway

"We're going to take that Hill", vowed Richard Klass, executive director of the Veterans' Alliance for Security and Democracy (VETPAC) on a late September morning at Washington's Phoenix Park Hotel. Klass was speaking before as many as one hundred reporters and photographers as he introduced Congressman Jack Murtha (D-PA), the outspoken critic of the Iraq War and ex-Marine, who in turn introduced a dozen of the lesser-known of this year's 57 "Fighting Dem" military-vet candidates. If "we" is understood to mean Democrats generally, Klass was prescient: Scores of aggressive Democratic campaigns around the country this year coupled with public unrest over Iraq and displeasure with Republican-dominated Washington to flip both houses of Congress in what even President Bush called a "thumpin'" of the Republican Party. The key issue, of course, was Iraq.

If "we" is taken to mean military-vet candidates, however, the story is more complicated. Two of the twelve Democratic military vets present that morning with Klass and Murtha would end up winning-a percentage within shooting distance of the rather small total number of "Fighting Dem" victories in this year's midterms (six of a total 57), which itself is not so different a proportion than the number of veterans in the general public (around 10 percent). The rest of the party would storm the halls of Congress. Which prompts a question: Did the much-discussed "Fighting Dems" really matter much?

In one immediately important respect they did: It was a "Fighting Dem" who delivered the Senate to Democratic control this year and outflanked many seasoned election prognosticators. That candidate, James Webb of Virginia, scored his party the upset it needed over incumbent George Allen with a 7,000-vote victory margin out of 2.3 million cast statewide to take control of Congress' upper chamber. This in turn has positioned Democrats to influence the war that these candidates so criticized-which would have been much more difficult to do had Democrats failed to seize both chambers. In that respect a single "Fighting Dem" vindicated the many candidates who echoed Klass in his vow to take Capitol Hill for the Democrats.

The rest of the "Fighting Dems" narrative is not so clear. First, it is not even clear whether "Fighting Dems" were ever a statistically significant political phenomenon this year except in the eyes of the beholder, people looking for a wartime election "trend." To say that the "Fighting Dems" may not have been a statistically significant trend is not to say that the phenomenon was not real. Surely it was in the minds of party enthusiasts and, once the message filtered out, in the minds of voters anxious about Iraq. Right now it is quite real for everyone else, as manifested in Webb's hard-fought victory. It reorients Congress in ways destined to change President Bush's options on Iraq.

This is instead to say that "Fighting Dems" is a classic of electioneering and perception management. It capitalized on Republican missteps in Iraq, probably helped to alleviate some of the negative perception associated with Democrats on national security and, in general, was one of several offensives the Democrats waged successfully this year-ensuring that the party would position itself for maximum influence over Iraq and foreign policy in 2007-08. And that, in turn, makes it something of a case study for so-called "liberal" scholars of international relations who argue that domestic politics influence relations between sovereign states. That will certainly be the case when Democrats wield their influence beginning in January 2007.

It is also to say that the import of "Fighting Dems" goes beyond the raw numbers of seats won and lost. In some respects the idea of the Democratic military-vet candidate was an inevitable one, which the current political climate ushered into existence.

The fact that "Fighting Dems" became such a major election-year theme without, in the end, delivering many seats in Congress says much about the national political climate. Voters were (and are) anxious about Iraq. The Democratic Party needed to provide an alternative national security image to President Bush's. It needed to overcome the perception that the party was soft on terrorism. Meanwhile, a poorly executed war was creating hundreds of thousands of war veterans and some genuine war heroes. At least some of these would come away from the war effort disaffected. Some proportion was bound to enter politics. Some proportion would become worthy spokesmen for the Democratic Party. And the political climate was ready to push people into that role if they weren't already there.

To hear or read Democratic activist literature from places like Al Franken's Air America radio network or the liberal website Daily Kos over much of 2006, one might have thought that a generation of politically-minded Democratic military veterans without parallel in Republican circles, those "chicken hawk"-dominated places, was emergent. The air was abuzz with stories of Tammy Duckworth, Eric Massa and other Democratic vets seemingly poised for great things around the country.

This, with all due respect, was a lot of election-year hooey. There surely was some interesting activity in 2005-06 among Democratic veterans, unprecedented in number for the party's recent history and occurring in the momentous context of an unpopular, Republican-led Iraq War heading south rapidly in 2005-06. It certainly looked like such a wave could be in the offing once Paul Hackett, the photogenic and well-spoken Democratic veteran critic of the Iraq War, lost narrowly to Republican Jean Schmidt in the special 2005 House election in the state of Ohio.

But this trend, it turned out, consisted mostly of hope and speculation. Things could only look like a Democratic military wave absent historical comparisons or tedious-to-collect nationwide data on the number of military-vet candidates.

In September, to check the numbers in context, I counted up the number of military vets amongst both challengers and incumbents in this year's competitive races as judged by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, and I discovered something intriguing. There were actually two more Republican veterans in the 91 races deemed competitive by Cook as of mid-September if one counts both incumbents and challengers-which Republicans had not bothered to do and which, understandably, the voices behind "Fighting Dems" were not doing for them. These voices were instead tallying every Democratic veteran nationwide who had declared a candidacy and then shopping the number to reporters. Which makes for a "generation" if the context is omitted.

To see what a real "vets offensive" looks like, consider the Republican class of 1994. The GOP actively recruited military vets as part of that year's efforts. Counting governors, 34 military veterans were elected on the GOP ticket that year, including two Gulf War vets and future stars like George W. Bush, Tom Ridge, Tom Davis and Lindsey Graham. Of course, unlike this year's "Fighting Dems", the media didn't tout this "offensive" at all. One must review 1994 freshman biographies from National Journal's Almanac of American Politics to piece the story together.

As one sign of where the interests are vested this year, the Republican National Committee did not tally up the number of Republican veteran challengers nationwide, nor did any conservative activist group, preferring instead to pooh-pooh Democratic touting of veterans as a political ploy. The number, I surmised, is somewhere between two and three-dozen. That's smaller than the cadre of 57 Democratic military vets, but then, this was a purely defensive year for Republicans in which incumbent protection was deemed paramount and the recruitment of desirable newcomers was all but ignored. Democrats, by contrast, were on the offensive almost everywhere with new blood.

What's more, Democrats probably have stronger incentives to run military-vet candidates. Doing so must relieve some portion of the perception problem Democrats in recent decades have faced on national security. As if to confirm it, I discovered a 2005 dissertation in political science at the University of Texas at Austin by Jeremy Teigen, now a political science professor at Ramapo College in New Jersey, showing that Democrats in the 2002 midterm elections stood to perform two percentage points better on average by running a military-vet candidate than they otherwise would running a civilian.

Republicans, meanwhile, gained no detectable advantage in so doing. Advantage Democrats on the military-vet candidate archetype-which probably explains whatever numerical discrepancy remains in vet-candidate numbers in this year's contest. Democrats were apparently able to pick up some skeptical voters in 2002, perhaps by virtue of tougher-seeming candidates, perhaps by picking up more of the military vote or a combination of the two.

So, it seems that the Democratic Party sensed a need for an alternative to President Bush's Iraq message and found a large part of it in the "fighting" image provided by military-vet candidates. A number of these candidates had already declared themselves at the grassroots level. The media was looking for such a trend, sensing public discontent over Iraq in polls and wanting to cover the story aggressively. Democrats knew that they could help narrow what was left of the national security perception gap between themselves and Republicans (they didn't need to, it turns out: Because of Iraq, the gap had already narrowed or even reversed to a Democratic advantage in most polls by November 2006).

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