Monday, March 31, 2008


On Friday, Matt Stoller argued that America's fondness for war-tested presidents is overstated:

...1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 all saw the candidate without military service elected over the candidate who had served, in several cases heroically.

... while the conservative myth is dominant in the political press, there's no just no evidence voters want a hero for President.... Or at any rate, since 1992, voters keep voting against the hero. So don't be lulled by McCain's narrative into thinking it's a sign that he's a tough candidate. That's what John Kerry thought when he took on George Bush. Bush might be President, but Kerry was a hero in Vietnam, and surely the American people would trust a hero with national security....

The obvious answer with regard to Kerry is that he was a Democrat, and the GOP and the press can always find a way to discredit a Democratic presidential candidate, however brave and honorable his service.

But what about the other years Stoller mentions, especially 1992 and 1996? Well, all those elections took place between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. More important, I think, in all four of the years Stoller mentions, the veteran was the candidate the press didn't want to have a beer with. The beer factor trumps a lot, even Bob Dole's significant impairment as a result of war wounds.

McCain suffered far more in war than Gore (who never saw combat), Kerry, Poppy Bush, or even Dole. McCain is the only one of these candidates apart from Kerry to try to market himself as a wounded warrior in a time of conflict -- and Kerry was both a Democrat (i.e., a member of a discredited party) and a man better known as a war opponent than a war hero.

And, most important, the press thinks McCain is beer-worthy, whereas the press found Clinton (twice) and George W. Bush (twice) more beer-suitable than the veterans they ran against.

I don't know how this election will work out. We'll have a rare beer-worthy charismatic Democratic candidate in the Clinton/JFK mold (the National Beer Wholesalers Association has already determined that the public vastly prefers Obama to either McCain or Clinton as a suds companion). But it's wartime, and McCain may be the press's preferred drinking partner. And his war suffering was on another level altogether. So this election year may be different from the last four.


And in today's New York Times, William Kristol also ticks off the last four elections and notes that "Democracies don't always elect the man who has done the most for his country."

Nice to know, now that it doesn't matter, that Kristol actually honors the service of Kerry and Gore, in both war and peace. But to his main point -- that McCain needs more than just biography to get elected -- I'd say: Yes, that's true, but he doesn't necessarily need what Kristol thinks he needs. He may not need "a broad reform agenda, including "an up-to-date, capitalism-friendly and transparency-requiring approach to regulating the credit markets." He may just need to keep buttering up the press.

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