By Jay Kirell
It’s that time of the year again – election season. Well, not really, but since we live in a 24/7 news cycle, being over a half a year away from the mid-term elections constitutes being ‘within’ a season.
Right now candidates across the country are vying for their party’s nomination in primaries, or have already secured the nomination to run against entrenched incumbents.
Many of these candidates come from legal or financial backgrounds. Some are lower-level politicians looking to rise up the ranks and some are political neophytes recruited by the local Democratic or Republican parties to run in races nobody else wanted to bother with.
Included amongst those political neophytes are military veterans, many of whom are stepping quickly out of participation in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and into the partisan battles waged here at home. Veterans have served this country in all levels of politics since the founding of the nation, and while the percentage of vets in Congress has shrunk over the years, new veterans are running at record numbers for higher office.
But many more run than win, and while many service-members may leave the armed forces with hopes of being elected to public office one day, there are a few things they should consider before throwing their hat into the ring.
1. Thanking you for your service is not the same thing as supporting your campaign
Everybody will thank you for your service. Nobody will question your patriotism or your selflessness. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they’ll open their checkbook and show you how much your service meant to them. That doesn’t mean they’ll campaign for you, put a sign in their yard for you, or even agree to vote for you. Your service is useful only insofar as it’ll get a voter to politely listen to you without slamming the door in your face.
2. Nobody knows or cares about your rank, awards or medals received
Unless you won the Medal of Honor, I really wouldn’t put every single achievement in your biography unless you want the eyes of your non-veteran voters to gloss over. Outside of the MoH and the Purple Heart, most people don’t know what service medals signify. To most voters, there’s next to no difference between the veteran running for office who was a Major with a Silver Star and three purple hearts and a Private with an achievement medal and a good conduct award. A vet is a vet, and unless you’re trying to win the support of established local veteran organizations, leave block 13 of your DD214 off your campaign literature.
3. Your service is fair game, all of it
If a major part of your biography is your service, then the totality of that service is up for scrutiny and investigation. Get busted down in rank? Whatever caused that to happen is fair game. Receive an official reprimand? Yup, that too. Are there unsavory accusations against you from those you served with? Their stories will be told. Unless you made it through your entire military career without so much as a negative counseling statement, prepare to defend your service record.
4. Attacking you isn’t the same thing as attacking veterans
There will come a point in time when your opponent will attack you, either because they dismiss you as a non-entity or because they’re genuinely frightened of your chances. Attacking you as a candidate isn’t the same as attacking you as a veteran, or attacking veterans in general. A candidate who steps off the battlefield and into a political campaign with nary a stopover in low-level government will be accused of lacking the experience necessary to hold public office. Inexperience is a common line of attack against any challenger, veteran or otherwise, and isn’t an indictment of the worthiness or value of military experience. But military experience is no substitute for political experience any more than being a town councilman makes you qualified to lead a fire team.
5. Don’t expect other veterans to automatically rally around you
You’re a veteran running for office, congratulations. You know who couldn’t care less? Other veterans. Vets are a diverse group in all possible ways, including politically. I’m a veteran, but if I decide to run for office one day and walk into an American Legion hall and start advocating for the extremely liberal ideals I hold so dear, I wouldn’t expect to walk out with a lot of converts just because the audience and I happened to both be veterans. For further proof of this, see John Kerry’s presidential run in 2004 and how many veterans mocked and ridiculed both his service and his multiple purple hearts. Veterans may all share a bond, but that bond isn’t necessarily as strong as the bond that exists between ideologues.
6. If your service is the centerpiece of your campaign, you’re probably going to lose
It should go without saying that being elected to public office is a difficult thing to accomplish for anyone. Between the money required to run a campaign, the ego required to believe you’re the most qualified, and the mental and physical energy required to suffer through attacks and inquiries into your personal life, it’s no wonder most people don’t even bother dreaming about running for office. Those that do tend to have some sort of accomplishment and experience or story behind them, giving them a connection to the voters. If your candidacy starts and stops with your military experience, then you are going to be severely limited. Less than one percent of the public serves in the military anymore, making veterans status a unique and valuable wrinkle in any candidate’s bio. But wrinkles alone don’t make a resume, they enhance it. If there’s nothing else to enhance, military service will just stand alone, virtually useless. As a veteran, your whole life experience should be part of the framing of the narrative of who you are and what you can offer voters, not just what you did while in uniform. If that portion of your life is the only thing you’re giving them; if you’re marketing yourself as “the veteran running for ___” – you’ve already told voters you don’t have much to offer and might want to rethink what really makes you qualified for public office.