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The Obama/Progressive Blind Spot That Just Might Hand McCain The White House

05/25/2011 12:35 pm ET

It pained me to see Senator Obama miss a big opportunity at Wesleyan. A few days before Memorial Day he delivered the commencement speech filling in for Senator Kennedy. Senator Obama mentioned serving our country and used the word service many times. He spoke of joining the Peace Corps. He talked about the good it does one's soul to be part of "something bigger than one's self." However, Senator Obama never said -- even once -- that one good option for service -- and for being part of something bigger than ourselves -- includes volunteering to serve in our military. Why?

By definition a blind spot is something overlooked because it isn't on the gut-level radar screen of an individual or group -- even if they think they have it covered. In other words, they just don't get it, no ill will, just non-connection.

There is a looming progressive (hence Democratic Party, hence Obama) blind spot that might hand John McCain the White House: progressive's (and Obama's) seeming inability to be comfortable talking about the military, and/or not knowing how to when they do, and/or not mentioning those who serve at all ... unless forced to. This has to change -- fast.

Want to lose millions of potential votes from military people and their families and friends, even from people ready for a change, even from people who despise Bush and don't trust McCain? I'm a good test case.

I avidly support Senator Obama (as anyone knows who has read my many essays extolling him in the Huffington Post, or who reads the attacks against me on far-right blogs because of my Obama support). But I'm also a military parent loyal to my Marine son's choice to serve. So the fact that something Senator Obama unwittingly did last week disappointed me is instructive. (Please pass this on if you happen to know our candidate personally!)

Obama still has my vote, but he already did. If I was still making up my mind and thinking only as a military father, he might have lost me. At least I would have been more open to the Republican lie that Democrats are somehow antimilitary, hence not to be trusted with national security.

Is military service just for "other" people, not for upper class educated kids with lots of opportunities? If a potential commander-in-chief is giving a speech to young people about service and never once says, "And some of you who are so inclined and able should consider volunteering for our military, as well as other options like serving in the Peace Corps," a military parent feels like he or she has been slapped in the face.

Obama is no pacifist. He speaks warmly of those who serve. He is working to make Senator Webb's new GI bill law (for increased post-military educational benefits) and standing up to Bush's disgusting threatened veto.

If Obama becomes commander-in-chief he'll need our military to fight in Afghanistan, which he's said he'll order the military to do, and/or to withdraw from Iraq. It won't be "Bush's war" then. Whose military will it be?

Did my son make the wrong choice when he volunteered for the Marine Corps in 1999? I was ambivalent about the idea of my son volunteering, and that was before Bush and 9/11 let alone Iraq. I learned that it was the best thing that ever happened to him or to me for the very reasons Obama mentioned at Wesleyan -- our family learned that we were part of something bigger than ourselves, and my son learned to see the Marine standing nexxt to him as more important than him.

It was my selfishness and snobbery that blinded me to the value of my son's service. His service connected me to my country in a new way. It's one reason why I'm working so hard to get Obama elected. I understand that my son was serving our country, not serving Bush. I get it when Obama calls us to something better than mere consumerism.

The way the subject of the military is approached by many progressives is similar to certain kinds of white politicians saying that many of their best friends are black. They may mean it. They may not. They may indeed have black friends. But somehow such comments (even when well intended) fall short of the mark in convincing most African-Americans of good will, let alone empathy.

Why? Because if the only time a white politician brings up the subject of black people is if he or she is asked to say something "official" on Martin Luther King Day, or if the only time they quote WEB Du Bois, is if they're the token Republican invited to an NAACP gathering, there's an empathy gap.

I happen to be a hands-on student of the relationship between civilian and military culture. With Kathy Roth-Douquet I co-wrote what many folks (on the left and the right) say is "the book" on class and the military (who serves and who doesn't) and the disconnect between military people and civilian leadership. (AWOL-The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes From Military Service and How It Hurts Our Country) With my Marine son John, I also co-wrote Keeping Faith -- A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps. After Oprah, 20/20, the Today Show and such had Kathy and me and/or John and me on, I received over 10,000 emails from military family members about their feelings related to service. I think I know how they -- how we -- feel. Democrats who want to win in November, listen up please.

Window dressing --obligatory mentions of "those who serve," on Memorial Day or at VA meetings, aren't enough. Call this the "Detroit factor." So far Senator Obama hasn't taken the message of military service -- and a call to service -- to "Detroit" as he did with his gutsy message on the environment and energy delivered to the car makers. With the military service issue it's the same. Democrats in general and Senator Obama in particular, need to weave a pro-military service message into talks given to nonmilitary, even sometimes antimilitary, audiences so it counts.

Only then will the commitment to our troops seem real to people with skin in the game. And in a Nixon-goes-to-China move Senator Obama needs to do what no leading Republican or Democrat has had the courage to do: talk about the unwitting collusion between the Pentagon's recruiting planners and our top universities and the upper-middle-class. It is just too convenient that only one sort of Americans usually gets asked to volunteer. The heavy lifting should be shared more fairly. Say so.

Imagine if Obama had talked about the failure of our elite to volunteer, in proportion to our working and middle class population, at that ill-fated talk in San Francisco, and that had been leaked, instead of sound bites about "bitter" Americans. How do you think Obama's call for all Americans of whatever class to at least consider military service would have played in Pennsylvania and rural Kentucky?

Progressives also need to avoid the often the unwittingly condescending language of military victimhood that Senator Webb often talks about. Nothing turns off military people faster than being talked about as if we are victims. Progressives don't get that military people are proud of their service and often pleased with their choice to serve. It's not all about VA hospital funding or Bush or Iraq. It is also about having pride in one's child, sibling, spouse or father or mother standing up.

All too often Progressives act and speak as if military service is service to George Bush. My son volunteered when Clinton was president. My son wasn't Bush's Marine, he was your Marine. He regarded his time in the military as service to America, not for the Republicans, far less for one president.

Senator Obama should talk positively about military service in nonmilitary settings. He should use the military as a good example when he can, not just as a "support the troops" mantra. Obama should speak of the fact that the military exemplifies progressive opportunity and putting others first. For instance, when Senator Obama is looking for a good social model he might point out that the pay of a 4-star general is only 9 times higher than that of a private, in contrast to the example he often gives about some CEOs earning in 10 minutes what their workers earn in a year. And the general and private share the same health plan. Moreover, unlike our top colleges, our military--the stupidity of Congress and the military on gay rights asside -- does a better job of leveling the racial and class playing field than anyone else.

Another missed opportunity is when Senator Obama talks about his proposal for helping college students financially and says that they should "owe our country something in return." Again, he lists organizations to join such as the Peace Corps or soup kitchens to "give something back." Obama must add military service to his list.

Up to now in Obama's speeches it seems as if some service -- Teach For America, Peace Corps, etc., -- is more equal than others, not by what Obama says, but by what he doesn't say.

Senator Obama says he won't take anything off the table when conducting diplomacy over such issues as Darfur and Iran's nuke potential. We all know that means he keeps the military option "on the table." Whose military?

If Obama needs to threaten the "stick," in Darfur who will carry it for him? The Peace Corps? If Senator Obama is elected, will progressives and/or their children, volunteer for "Obama's military?"

Obama has a unique chance to wean many Republican-voting military people--that's millions of people, counting active duty, vets and their extended families--away from the Republican Party this year. He can do this because of Bush's failures and also because Obama is such a wonderful and inspiring leader. He can do this because the military family wants change too.

The military family is tired of war, and angry with a president who told America to go shopping and never asked everyone else to do their bit, while the military was sent to war. Obama must not repeat the mistake. Places like Wesleyan are exactly where the next commander-in-chief has to call for fairly shared service and sacrifice.

Obama can break the a stereotype that can still do in the progressive movement in 2008. Replay the Wesleyan speech. Where could a compliment to the military and a call to military service have fit in naturally? It would have meant a lot to this military father to know that in the mind of my future president my son's service counts too.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of "CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back"

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