Shadow Government

The Other Veterans’ Controversy: Political Endorsements

I do not have much to add to the BIG controversy relating to veterans: the reports of gross mismanagement of health services within the Department of Veterans Affairs. The reports are deeply disturbing, and President Barack Obama is right to shift into crisis-management mode. As with the debacle of the launch of the Affordable Care Act, ...


I do not have much to add to the BIG controversy relating to veterans: the reports of gross mismanagement of health services within the Department of Veterans Affairs. The reports are deeply disturbing, and President Barack Obama is right to shift into crisis-management mode. As with the debacle of the launch of the Affordable Care Act, this is a crisis that cannot be dismissed as partisan sniping. Obama needs to figure out what went wrong, why, and who was responsible — and he needs to take decisive action along the way.

Coincidentally, there has been another, much smaller, controversy relating to veterans in the news: General Dempsey’s comments in an interview about his desire that retired senior general and flag officers refrain from publicly endorsing presidential candidates. And as this one is squarely in my wheelhouse, I do have a few thoughts to add.

First some background: The dispute is over whether it is harmful for senior retired military to endorse presidential candidates. As my co-authors on an article for the Center for a New American Security Jim Golby, Kyle Dropp, and I have argued, the modern phase of this controversy probably began with Admiral William Crowe’s surprising endorsement of then-Governor Bill Clinton in the 1992 election. The practice has escalated since then, and in the last presidential election the campaigns competed with dueling lists of general and flag officers (GO/FOs) who publicly endorsed one candidate or the other. Governor Mitt Romney may have won the "GO/FO primary" but our research showed that Obama probably got more electoral payoff, albeit a modest one.

General Dempsey has long been on record opposing this practice, and in a recent Q&A session at the Atlantic Council excerpted in the Defense News, returned to the subject:

If you want to get out of the military and run for office, I’m all for it. But don’t get out of the military … and become a political figure by throwing your support behind a particular candidate. If somebody asks me when I retire to support them in a political campaign, do you think they’re asking Marty Dempsey or are they asking Gen. Dempsey? I am a general for life and I should remain true to our professional ethos, which is to be apolitical for life; unless I run.

This quote provoked some interesting on-line reaction on a website focused on military issues. Some commenters supported Dempsey, but more objected to his position.

Some may have been over-reacting to the headline, supplied by Defense News, not by General Dempsey: "Dempsey to Retired Generals: Shut Up When it Comes to Politics." So far as I have been able to determine, General Dempsey never said "shut up." A fairer headline, but one less likely to grab attention, would have been "General Dempsey to Retired Generals: Think Twice Before You Endorse Presidential Candidates." I am not saying that a famously frank General would never say "shut up," but I do think, as the quote itself indicates, that Dempsey’s position is more complex than the headline suggests, and indeed, more persuasive.

Many of those objecting simply confuse the matter. At issue here is not the rights of retired military to publicly endorse candidates. Of course, they have the right to do so; while in uniform, they had to be silent because the Uniform Code of Military Justice does impose restrictions on what the military can do and say in the area of partisan politicking — and for sound functional reasons. But once retired they are legally free to speak; the question is whether it is good for them to do so. More to the point, the question is whether doing so harms national security in ways that eclipse any benefit.

Also, as Dempsey makes clear, the issue is not whether retired military should run for office. Dempsey explicitly says he is fine with retired military running for presidential office, but objects to retired military — especially the seniormost retired military — publicly endorsing others who run.

How could such a distinction make sense? Because when a veteran runs for office he or she is explicitly crossing over the divide between partisan politics and military affairs. Dwight Eisenhower became forever President Eisenhower, Republican President. Wes Clark became forever Democratic Presidential candidate. Yes, people may still render the honorific title of "General" on Clark, but he is rightly seen as different — more fully within the partisan world — from other generals who stayed confined to military affairs. And by running openly, these men and women formally abandoned the military ethic of non-partisanship that is so important to the military profession.

GO/FO’s who endorse publicly without running are trying to dip one toe in the partisan waters whilst keeping their privileged place as military professionals, above politics and serving as the neutral servant of the state, and representing the entire nation. For, make no mistake about it, Americans treat those who are perceived to be above politics with greater respect than those who are perceived to be fully engaged in partisan politics. And if an institution seems to migrate from above to below, then public esteem for that institution falls — just ask the Supreme Court.

A big reason why political campaigns want public endorsements from senior retired military is precisely so as to bathe their candidates in the reflected glow of the public esteem for the supposedly-above-politics professional military. The campaigns are not interested in the particular endorsements of individuals, but rather in the corporate sense that group and high-profile endorsements appear to convey: "here is a candidate that the military institution would like to see be President." That is what Dempsey means when he says, "do you think they’re asking Marty Dempsey or are they asking Gen. Dempsey?"

So retired GO/FO’s should ask themselves, why are campaigns inviting me to do this and what does my endorsement convey. If the answer truly is, "the campaigns are only interested in me as an average citizen and my endorsement conveys no more meaning than the lawn sign my neighbor, the lowly professor, has outside his or her house" then what is the harm? But if the answer is, "the campaigns are only interested in my first name, which happens to be General or Admiral, and hope my endorsement conveys the notion that the military as an institution prefers this candidate" then the harm is more evident. 

I can think of two pernicious consequences. First, such endorsements contribute to the idea that the military is a partisan institution actively involved in partisan politics. That will erode public trust in the military — something that may already be in jeopardy. Note how younger people have much less confidence in the military than older people do. Second, such en
dorsements weaken the advisory role of existing military and encourage the politicization of the selection of future GO/FO’s.

Presidents live in fear of senior military officers who were privy to their counsels coming out to endorse their opponents. To protect itself from this, the White House is going to try to distance itself from senior military advisors they think might be prone to such behavior after retirement. And they will have further incentive to make sure that they are picking generals and admirals who are not likely to endorse an opponent. One unfortunate way to do that is to try to pick GO/FO’s who agree with the president politically. That will erode the ability of active duty military officers to contribute professional advice to the policymaking process.

Eventually, if the practice runs rampant, the White House will seek assurances that the choices for the highest commands and offices are safe partisans rather than the very best officers for the job. Already some active duty officers have been accused of such partisan standing, lessening the persuasiveness of their professional judgment; in other words, the partisan activities among the senior retired ranks rebounds to lessen the influence and ability of their successors to fulfill their function in the nation’s security.

So I think retired generals would be wise to heed Dempsey on this one, as well as his predecessors, including Admiral Mike Mullen and others who agreed, but didn’t make as much of an issue of it because retired officers were less prone to violate the professional norm of nonpartisanship. In this case, think less about rights and more about wrongs.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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