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Graham’s Exit Signals Decline of Military Service in Elections

Graham got a new challenger on his right this weekend. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Graham got a new challenger on his right this weekend. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Given his dismally low polling numbers, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s exit from the presidential race was no surprise. But his departure removes one of the most hawkish voices from the Republican race which has largely become about national security.  In the era of an all-volunteer military when only about 1 percent of the U.S. adult population serves  in the armed forces,  Graham removes one of the few candidates in the race who can relate to the shared experience of military service.  

Dan Caldwell, legislative director at Concerned Veterans for America, said his organization is more concerned about candidates’ views on reforming the Department of Defense or Veterans Affairs than on whether they served in the military?  

“It should not be the sole factor in why someone ultimately decides to vote for a candidate,” Caldwell said. “We encourage  veterans to look at policy foremost.”  

To be certain, some presidential candidates have had influence on national security policy in positions they have held in Congress. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul both sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Bernie Sanders was chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.  Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state and was on the Armed Service Committee during her time in the Senate.  

Graham served in the United States Air Force as an active duty member, in the South Carolina Air National Guard and later served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, and retired earlier this year.  

This leaves only former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who served in the U.S. Army, who has pointed out that none of the main stage GOP presidential candidates have any military service. In addition, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the first candidate to drop out of the race, served in the U.S. Air Force for five years.  

On the Democratic side, former Sen. Jim Webb earned the Navy Cross, Silver Star and two Purple Hearts during his service in Vietnam but the former secretary of the Navy didn’t find much of a following among Democrats.  

This comes after the 2012 election, when neither the President Barack Obama nor former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had a record of military service. Romney received a draft deferment  to serve as a Mormon missionary during Vietnam and Obama wasn’t old enough to serve.  

Conversely, in 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry touted his service in Vietnam as a plus, though both he and President George W. Bush faced questions about the nature of their service.  

In 2008, Sen. John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war was part of the narrative of his campaign, only to be slammed by Donald Trump, who claims he received a medical deferment for spurs in his feet, earlier this year when Trump said McCain was not a war hero and that “I like people who weren’t captured.” Military service was standard for many presidential candidates. John F. Kennedy was recognized for bravery for his service in the Navy during World War II. Jimmy Carter was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and served on a nuclear submarine and George H.W. Bush was in the Navy when he earned his wings during World War II.

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