There’s been a casual agreement in recent campaign cycles that presidential candidates with military backgrounds tout their service, but they don’
May 22, 2008

There’s been a casual agreement in recent campaign cycles that presidential candidates with military backgrounds tout their service, but they don’t necessarily denigrate their rivals for not wearing a uniform. In each of the last five races, one presidential hopeful had considerably more military experience than his rival, and in each instance, the one who served resisted the temptation to attack the other for not having served.

This year, that’s apparently off the table.

Republican John McCain launched a harsh attack on Democrat Barack Obama’s lack of military credentials Thursday, charging that the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination has “zero understanding” of veteran’s issues. [...]

For McCain, who supports the unpopular war in Iraq and is running in a tough year for Republicans, Obama’s lack of military experience may be his strongest line of attack in the fall.

Obama started this flap, criticizing McCain’s decision to oppose a modernized, bipartisan GI Bill. McCain’s overheated response made it personal: “I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did.”

There are a couple of angles to this. First, obviously, is McCain trying to say he has credibility on the issue, by virtue of his background. This is a surprisingly weak pitch — McCain’s service isn’t relevant to his Senate votes that undercut those currently wearing the uniform.

Second, it’s curious that so many in the media continue to believe that McCain is reluctant to campaign on his military service, when just the opposite is pretty obvious.

Reporters seem to be thinking of the 2000 McCain, who went out of his way to avoid talking about his Navy background. They may even be thinking of 2004, when McCain criticized John Kerry for reminding voters of his own heroic service. McCain said he was “sick and tired of re-fighting the Vietnam War,” and disparaged Kerry, saying his emphasis on his military record is “clearly a tactical or strategic move.”

But this is a far different McCain. This McCain seems to believe, “You can’t criticize me; I’m a war hero.”

Indeed, Bloomberg reported this week that McCain seems to be using his background as something of a catch-all “trump card.”

Whether he’s deflecting criticism over his health-care plan or mocking a tribute to the Woodstock music festival, Senator John McCain has a trump card: the Hanoi Hilton.

That’s the nickname for the site where he spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, a past that McCain regularly recalls on the campaign trail to fend off policy attacks, score political points and give voters a glimpse of his sentimental side. He campaigns with squadrons of POWs and made a video to mark the 35th anniversary of his release from prison.

When Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former Senator John Edwards, rebuked McCain’s medical-care proposal and noted that he’d always enjoyed government health benefits, McCain responded that he knows what it’s like to get inadequate care — “from another government.” During an October debate, while knocking a Hillary Clinton plan to help fund a museum celebrating Woodstock, McCain said he missed the 1969 festival because he was “tied up at the time.” Even his rivals applauded.

Even this week, when McCain was pressed on why he flip-flopped on normalized relations with Cuba, he responded, “My record is unchanged and consistent for 24 years. A Cuban officer and enlisted men came to Hanoi and tortured my friends — killed one of them. My position on Cuba has been exactly the same.”

The McCain campaign brings up the war “often enough to make sure it stays in people’s minds, but not so much that it seems exploitative and crass,” said Media Matters’ Paul Waldman.

True, though if McCain’s only defense for opposing expanded education benefits for the troops is “Obama didn’t serve and I did,” he’s certainly getting awfully close to the exploitative/crass line.

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