Mitt Romney's acceptance of the Republican nomination on Thursday will end one of the longest traditions in American national politics - an eighty-year streak during which the Republican Party ensured that at least one of its national candidates had worn the nation's uniform. Not since Republicans gathered in the heat of Chicago in June 1932 to nominate Herbert Hoover and Charles Curtis has the party of Lincoln and Grant, of Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower failed to find a veteran worthy of carrying the standard for their party.
Though Romney's acceptance of the nomination will mark the official end of a tradition that has varied in its rigidness - with war heroes like John McCain marking one end of the spectrum and Texas Air National Guard veteran George W. Bush at the other - it has been decades since the GOP abandoned all efforts to directly represent men and women in uniform on its ticket.
Ironically, the announcement that the 2012 GOP ticket would be without a veteran came in front of an American battleship--albeit a ship that is no longer a commissioned for service but rather sits as a museum exhibit in Norfolk, Virginia. Lifted by the theme music from the movie Air Force One, Paul Ryan burst out of the USS Wisconsin and jogged to the stage to meet a financier-turned-politician to accept the invitation to run for vice president.
Ryan represents a new type of Republican national candidate, one who spent his entire career in the internecine battles of Capitol Hill as a staffer or in the charged ideological atmosphere of D.C. think tanks. Nowhere in his resume can one find a period in which personal ambition or ideological loyalty was subsumed by a commitment to the national interest or to the greater good. Instead, in line with Ayn Rand, the philosopher Ryan claimed as his personal inspiration in 2005, one finds a career that has made a virtue out of self-interest.
But Ryan's rise has hardly been unique. An unnoticed trend in Republican politics in the last few years has been the rejection of the traditional Republican candidates who have spent at least part of their careers serving their country in uniform in favor of ideological warriors for whom military service would seem an unneeded distraction from the ideological battles being fought against political opponents. The divisiveness of current politics would seem a clear result.
An early sign of this trend was Mike Lee's defeat of Senator Robert Bennett in Utah in May 2010. Rejecting the incumbent, a twelve-year chaplain in the Utah National Guard for whom compromise for the national interest was a norm, Utah Republicans chose instead an appellate litigator who grew up in the charged political world of Washington, DC, and rose to prominence working for judge and then Justice Samuel Alito.
Overall, the Republican wave of 2010, a wave in which the Republican Party highlighted its "Young Guns" veteran-candidate recruitment program, saw veteran membership in Congress drop to 118. This represents a 7% fall from the 127 veterans in office in 2007 when Democrats took over Congress and passed a slew of veteran-friendly legislation such as the post-9/11 GI Bill and substantially increased funding for the Veterans Administration. Part of this decline is certainly a demographic trend as WWII veterans retire - the 1969-71 Congress had 398 veterans - but the 2010 election also saw the defeat of several prominent Iraq and Afghan war veterans such as Pennsylvania Representative Patrick Murphy.
High-profile Republican primaries of 2012 have continued to reveal a trend of turning away from veterans. In May Senator Richard Lugar, a former Navy intelligence officer and leader in the Senate on national security issues, lost to Richard Mourdock, a man whose career was largely spent earning high salaries with mining and oil corporations.
In Texas Ted Cruz, another Supreme Court clerk, appellate litigator, and a nationally-ranked debater faced Texas Republican leaders' chosen candidate for Senate, David Dewhurst, a Vietnam Air Force veteran and Lieutenant Governor. "There are people who talk about the Constitution," Dewhurst repeated during the race, "and there are those who defend the Constitution." Cruz easily defeated Dewhurst in July.
Taken in isolation, all these results each have their own explanation. But taken as a whole, they solidify a trend that is best captured by the Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. When asked if any of his five sons had served in uniform during the last decade of war, he replied, " . . . one of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping to get me elected, because they think I'd be a great president."
It seems military service no longer serves as as important qualifier for public service in the Republican Party. Instead, a demonstrated history of ideological accomplishment is preferred. This loss is all the more striking considering that the nation has been engaged in armed conflict since 2001, noting the party's call for the invasion of Iraq in 2002-3 and for military strikes against Iran today, and observing the many polls showing a desire for cooperation and a decrease in the caustic tone of current politics.
Certainly military experience is not a requirement for a successful candidate or president. Neither President Obama nor Vice President Biden have served in uniform, though Biden's son did serve in Iraq in 2009. Their 2008 campaign went on to defeat one of the most prominent veterans in politics, Senator John McCain.
Nonetheless, President Obama is seen by most as a successful Commander-in-Chief, as he ended the Iraq War, oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden, aggressively pursued terrorists overseas, and successfully aided the overthrow of Muamar Qaddafi. Obama also tactfully handled the smooth repeal of DADT, a change long-feared as destructive to the cohesiveness of the military.
But with issues of national security looming large, the number of Americans killed in Afghanistan reaching 2000 this month, suicide among veterans reaches record highs, and veterans' health and education benefits seen as prominent portion of budget calculations, it seems a strange time for Republicans to begin nominating candidates with no military service whatsoever. Notably, the most clear policy statement from either candidate on priorities in regard to veterans, the 2010 budget authored by Ryan, failed to mention the word "veteran" in nearly 100 pages and cuts $11 billion, or 13%, of veterans spending from Obama's proposed levels.
As an Afghan war veteran and a student attending Stanford Law School on the post-9/11 GI Bill, I am disappointed by the change in the Republican Party over the last few years. I am reminded of the photo of a 19-year-old Romney taken at Stanford during a pro-Vietnam protest in 1966. His sign read "Speak up, Don't Sit In" and like the Republican ticket today, it advocated words without action. Romney went on to seek several deferments from Vietnam to be a missionary in France, to attend Brigham Young University, and to get a pair of graduate degrees at Harvard.
Though one can find the current Republican Party holding rallies in front of retired battleships, the substance of their commitment to military service and veterans seems more accurately captured by the theme music that accompanied Paul Ryan to the stage on August 11 - audibly stirring but fundamentally a fictional showpiece, signifying nothing.
Jake Klonoski is from Eugene, Oregon and is a Navy veteran. He served in Afghanistan, fought piracy off the coast of Somalia, and deployed in support of the 2011 conflict in Libya. He currently attends Stanford Law School where he co-founded the Stanford Law Veterans Organization.