Monday, May 24, 2004

Veterans as Voters and Political Leaders

Jason Zengerle writes:
Although the nation's 26.4 million veterans do constitute a sizable voting bloc -- making up about 12 percent of the adult population and accounting for an even greater share of the electorate in crucial states like New Hampshire and Washington -- most of that voting bloc is likely to belong to President Bush. "Veterans tend to be conservative, they tend to be Republicans," says Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke University who studies the political culture of the military. "Kerry will probably be able to make some inroads because of his own service and because of the anger some veterans have at the Bush administration. I expect that he will do better among veterans than Gore-Lieberman or Clinton-Gore. But I still don't think he will get more veteran votes than Bush." Indeed, in a national survey that Feaver and his colleague Christopher Gelpi conducted in April, veterans favored Bush over Kerry 57 to 36 percent. (In the same poll, Kerry and Bush were tied among nonveterans, with 46 percent each.) ("The Vet Wars," New York Times, May 23, 2004)
Bush's popularity among veterans would be puzzling if electoral politics were considered simply a matter of people voting their pocketbooks. Why would veterans want to vote for the man who cut their benefits, as well as tried to slash soldiers' pays in the midst of a major war, and would cut more if given a chance? According to Dave Lindorff:
  • With 130,000 soldiers still in the heat of battle in Iraq and more fighting and dying in Afghanistan, the Bush administration sought this year to cut $75 a month from the “imminent danger” pay added to soldiers’ paychecks when in battle zones. The administration sought to cut by $150 a month the family separation allowance offered to those same soldiers and others who serve overseas away from their families. Although they were termed “wasteful and unnecessary” by the White House, Congress blocked those cuts this year, largely because of Democratic votes.
  • This year’s White House budget for Veterans Affairs cut $3 billion from VA hospitals -- despite 9,000 casualties in Iraq and as aging Vietnam veterans demand more care. VA spending today averages $2,800 less per patient than nine years ago.
  • The administration also proposed levying a $250 annual charge on all Priority 8 veterans -- those with “non-service-related illnesses” -- who seek treatment at VA facilities, and seeks to close VA hospitals to Priority 8 veterans who earn more than $26,000 a year.
  • Until protests led to a policy change, the Bush administration also was charging injured GIs from Iraq $8 a day for food when they arrived for medical treatment at the Fort Stewart, Georgia, base where most injured are treated.
  • In mid-October, the Pentagon, at the request of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, announced plans to shutter 19 commissaries -- military-run stores that offer discounted food and merchandise that helps low-paid enlisted troops and their families get by -- along with the possibility of closing 19 more.
  • At the same time, the Pentagon also announced it was trying to determine whether to shutter 58 military-run schools for soldiers’ children at 14 military installations.
  • The White House is seeking to block a federal judge’s award of damages to a group of servicemen who sued the Iraqi government for torture during the 1991 Gulf War. The White House claims the money, to come from Iraqi assets confiscated by the United States, is needed for that country’s reconstruction.
  • The administration beat back a bipartisan attempt in Congress to add $1.3 billion for VA hospitals to Bush’s request of $87 billion for war and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • In perhaps its most dangerous policy, the White House is refusing to provide more than 40,000 active-duty troops in Iraq with Kevlar body armor, leaving it up to them and their families to buy this life-saving equipment. This last bit of penny-pinching prompted Pentagon critic and Vietnam veteran Col. David Hackworth to point to “the cost of the extraordinary security” during Bush’s recent trip to Asia, which he noted grimly “would cover a vest for every soldier” in Iraq. ("Dishonorable Discharge," In These Times, November 26, 2003 )
Besides, you would think that it is veterans -- especially combat veterans -- who, regardless of their opinions about the legality, morality, and necessity of the Iraq war, would be the most appalled by the manifest incompetence of the Bush team in purely military terms, evidenced by their inability to put down the Iraqi resistance while minimizing US casualties. Shouldn't they vote for John Kerry rather than Bush if they thought that what it would take to win the war would be to send more troops to Iraq while gaining more international support for the American venture? Shouldn't veterans want to support Ralph Nader rather than Bush if they wished to bring the troops home now? Whether to support or oppose the war, why would anyone who knows anything about war-fighting want to vote for Bush? The puzzle becomes solved, however, when we consider the gender and racial gaps:
  • "Mr. Kerry has the support of only 36 percent of white male voters, compared with 55 for the president, according to the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll, taken last month" (Nick Lyman, "Yes, Democrats Can Win (Some) White Male Voters," New York Times, May 23, 2004).

  • It's not surprising that the latest Bush campaign television ad has Laura Bush speaking on camera. A new Pew poll reveals a 12-point gender gap for Bush, enough to sink her husband in November. "Women are sick of Bush and all the macho strutting; it's gotten pretty old," says a Republican strategist. . . .

    Surveys taken in March showed women disapproving of Bush's job performance by 47 percent to 39 percent, while men approved 54 percent to 38 percent. The numbers in battleground states mirror the national scene. In Ohio, Bush's job approval among men in March was 53 to 45 percent while women disapproved 56 to 40 percent. In Wisconsin, one poll has Kerry leading Bush 50 to 42 percent with a wider margin of 54 versus 35 percent among women. In Oregon, a 1-point Kerry lead expands to 9 points when women are polled. (Eleanor Clift, "The Gender Gap," Newsweek, May 14, 2004)

  • This week, Cornell Belcher, a black pollster based in Washington, D.C., who works for several progressive organizations, shared some startling numbers with me. He has been doing monthly polling in six key battleground states -- Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Florida, Michigan and Nevada. Even as white voters nationwide have been moving toward negative feelings about the war, black voters have taken those feelings and supersized them.

    Seventy-three percent of African Americans in those states disagree that the war in Iraq is worth the U.S. casualties there because the country is safer. Sixty-three percent agree that America should cut its losses and pull out of Iraq right now.

    And here's the real kicker. On the question of whether Bush intentionally misled the country, 77 percent agree at least somewhat.

    Belcher doesn't have similar numbers for whites to compare, but all of those numbers are significantly worse for Bush than those found in recent national polls of both whites and blacks.

    In the latest nationwide Washington Post/ABC News poll, for example, respondents were split 49-47 (a virtual tie, considering the margin of error) on the question of "considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States, do you think the war with Iraq was worth fighting, or not?"

    "Whites are beginning to move from being split on the war to opposing the war," Belcher said. "African Americans are soundly against the war and have been for some time." (Terry M. Neal, "Bush, Blacks and Iraq: War May Make It Tough for the President to Make Inroads With Minority Voters," Washington Post, May 20, 2004)
The estimated number of women veterans is 1.6 million (US Census Bureau, "Women's History Month (March), February 13, 2004) -- 6.1% of the total US veteran population. The veteran population are overwhelmingly white as well: 2.6 million veterans are Black, "1.1 million are Hispanic, 284,000 are Asian and 196,000 are American Indian or Alaska native" (US Census Bureau, "Veterans Day 2003: Nov. 11," October 28, 2003). Therefore, if veterans tend to be conservative and Republican, as Feaver is quoted as saying in the Jason Zengerle article, a large part of what looks like veterans' political disposition in an opinion poll is most likely a reflection of white males' political preference, rather than a measure of military experience on politics.

That said, Feaver and Gelpi have an intriguing article "Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick?: Veterans in the Political Elite and the American Use of Force" (July 1, 2002). Having examined "the impact of the presence of veterans in the U.S. political elite on the propensity to initiate and escalate Militarized Interstate Disputes (MIDs) between 1816 and 1992," Feaver and Gelpi conclude: "As the percentage of veterans serving in the executive branch and the legislature increases, the probability that the United States will initiate militarized disputes declines. Once a dispute has been initiated, however, the higher the proportion of veterans, the greater the level of force the United States will use in the dispute" (July 1, 2002). Garry Young, assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, writes of Feaver and Gelpi's article on his blog No Panaceas:
I have several technical quibbles with their methods (which I’ll spare you), but overall it is a well-crafted, provocative piece of work. But let me be clear about what the article is not saying. It makes no claims about the quality of decisions being made, e.g., whether or not civilian-laden governments made “better” foreign policy decisions than veteran-laden governments. It simply demonstrates that a relationship exists.

Of course, you cannot read this article divorced from the current administration’s actions towards Iraq. While it would be fallacious to claim that Gelpi and Feaver's general finding proves anything about this specific case, the Bush administration’s policies carry the imprimatur of civilian policy wonks like Wolfowitz and Cheney, more so than it does veterans, especially war veterans, like Powell. How would things be different -- for better or worse -- if the dominant voices in the administration had first-hand war experience? (March 03, 2003)
If Feaver and Gelpi's findings are correct, what may we expect from Kerry if he gets elected? That Kerry is less likely to initiate new wars but more likely to use a greater level of force in Iraq than Bush? That's hardly a consolation for peace and justice activists, though, since the demands of the counterinsurgency war in Iraq, which has overstretched the US military to a breaking point, will make it difficult for the next administration to start a new war anyhow even if the next president really wants to.

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