Few 2016 Presidential Candidates Have Military Experience. Does That Matter?

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have never served in the military. Neither have Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum or Bobby Jindal. And those are just the Republicans gearing up for a presidential campaign.

The same goes for the Democrats likely to seek their party’s nomination for president: Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders aren’t veterans either.

But there are a few potential candidates that have: Republicans Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham and Democrat Jim Webb.

In an interview with The Daily Caller, Graham — a South Carolina senator who has been in the military for 33 years and is in the Air Force Reserve — said he doesn’t think every president necessarily needs military experience, but argued it is an asset.

“You get to walk in the shoes of the people who you’re going to be in charge of,” Graham told TheDC by phone. “So that’s all good. It doesn’t mean you have to be in the military to be a good commander-in-chief. But I think having that experience is a positive.”

Perry, the former governor of Texas, flew planes in the Air Force.

“The governor has spoken quite a bit about how his time in the military has helped shape his world view,” Perry spokesperson Lucy Nashed said. “He has seen first hand the good done by America’s military around the world, and the importance of protecting freedom and American values through his time in the Air Force.”

Webb, a former Virginia senator, fought in Vietnam in the Marine Corps.

“Only one was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star Medal, two Bronze Star Medals, and two Purple Hearts,” Craig Crawford, Webb’s communications director, said of the potential candidates with military experience.

“Jim’s military experience drives his often demonstrated concern about sending men and women into harm’s way without proper and constitutional debate in Congress that brings all Americans into the decision making process,” Crawford said.

The military service, or lack thereof, of presidential candidates has made big splashes in prior campaigns: Bill Clinton faced questions about draft deferments received during the Vietnam war; George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard was dissected during the 2004 campaign, as was John Kerry’s service in Vietnam; John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam was a central piece of his biography.

But today, most candidates in this post-Vietnam, all-volunteer military era have never worn the uniform. And perhaps surprisingly among veterans groups, that’s not necessarily a problem.

“While I think that serving in the military is a positive for any candidate, I don’t think it’s a necessity to make a good president,” said Dan Caldwell, the political director for the group Concerned Veterans for America.

“In fact, presidents with military experience like Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Ulysses Grant turned out to be terrible presidents who made decisions that negatively affected our foreign policy and the overall strength of our military,” Caldwell said. “For these individuals, their time in uniform clearly did not endow them with an ability to make sound national security decisions while president.”

Discussing the issue, Graham went out of his way to praise Webb and Perry’s service.

“Jim Webb’s military experience is legendary,” Graham said. “He was a war fighter on the front-lines, leading troops into battle. I think that gives you an appreciation of what war is like better than any other experience you can have.”

“Rick Perry was a pilot in the Air Force, which is the center piece of what the Air Force does,” Graham said. “He was part of an air crew. He understands the culture of flying and how wearing the uniform and being part of an organization, an air crew, gives you a sense of what the military is all about.”

Speaking about his own experience as a judge advocate, military prosecutor and defense attorney in the Air Force, Graham said: “I’ve been a legal adviser to military commanders in charge of units. And a good lawyer understands their clients needs. But when it comes to understanding how the military operates, the rules and regulations and the policies of war fighting and of running the military during peace time, I’ve had a real good dose of that.”

Graham said he has traveled to Afghanistan 23 times, six or seven of which were as a reservist.

“I’d stay for days, and sometimes a week or two…and it gave me an insight into detainee operations,” he said. “You stay there for several days, you’ll get a difference slice of the pie than if you’re just coming in with a CODEL getting briefed by the generals. You eat every night in the chow hall, you get to travel around. After a couple days, people begin to treat you as Col. Graham.”

As he turns 60 in July, Graham says he plans to retire from the reserve. “I’m going to hang it up, and all I can say is of all the things I’ve done in my life, being a member of the United States Air Force, being a judge advocate, doing multiple jobs, has been one of the highlights of my life,” he said.

Added Graham: “These experiences have made me a better senator, and if I’m able to become commander-in-chief, it will give me a point of reference that I think would be helpful.”

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