When absentee ballots rolled in from troops overseas in November, 2000, they provided the critical boost George W. Bush needed to win the White House. Bush had courted the military vote, helped by the Clinton Administration's record on everything from gays in uniform to Pentagon budget cuts. And he's still playing to the troops. "I'm proud to be the Commander-in-Chief of the greatest military, full of the finest people on the face of this earth," he said at Fort Carson, Colo., on Nov. 24.
But if Bush expects nothing but salutes at the polls in 2004, he may be in for a surprise. Soldiers, their families, and the great horde of veterans are beginning to question their leader's policies. Approval for the President among military relatives was a shockingly low 36% in a bipartisan Battleground poll by Lake, Snell, Perry & Associates Inc. and the Tarrance Group conducted on Sept. 7-10. Soldiers "are being used as cannon fodder," declares Nancy Lessin, the stepmother of a Marine who was deployed to Iraq and the co-founder of a group called Military Families Speak Out.
More than 400 casualties in Iraq and exhausting deployments are responsible for only part of the backlash. On the home front, a budget-strapped Pentagon is pinching pennies on military perks. And by yearend, it will lay out standards for shedding 25% of base capacity. That could shutter more than 100 facilities and further disrupt thousands of families' lives. While the final decisions won't come until 2005, the families' anxiety might dog Bush in 2004. Democrats could claim "the Administration has a plan to close many, many bases and is not telling the public until after the election," says Loren B. Thompson, COO of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank.
To many active-duty troops, reserves, National Guard units, veterans, and their families, the Bush-Cheney campaign promise of 2000 -- "Help is on the way" -- looks more like help is on the wane. "There is a corrosion of trust," says one active-duty Army officer who lives in Virginia. "I think it's going to turn on Bush during the election."
A bonanza for antiwar Democrats? Not necessarily. The Dems can't capitalize on a backlash in the barracks unless they nominate a candidate these voters can stomach. Retired General Wesley Clark or Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), a decorated Vietnam vet, would certainly be attractive to military voters. But antiwar candidate Howard Dean might raise too many hackles. Says Robert F. Thomas, a retired Navy commander in Arcadia, Fla.: "Our resolve to stick with President Bush is stronger than ever, considering the alternatives."
A FEW GOOD MEN
Even if his opponent doesn't turn out to be a giant on national security matters, however, Bush could still suffer. In a closely divided nation, a small shift in the military vote could have a tectonic political impact. The 1.5 million troops on active duty, 1.2 million reserves and National Guard, and 27 million veterans account for 23% of voters. With spouses and parents, the potential military bloc is enormous.
Moreover, in 2000, Bush narrowly carried seven states with a big defense presence, including Florida, Louisiana, and Missouri. "If Eglin Air Force Base were in Alabama instead of Florida, Al Gore would be in the White House," notes Thompson. So Democrats don't need a wholesale mutiny against Bush come next November. Just a few good men and women would suffice.
Matthew J. Dowd, pollster for the Bush reelection campaign, suggests that the President's approval rating among military families is driven by ethnicity and income. And he thinks parochial issues such as veterans' benefits won't swing the election. "The major drivers of voter behavior are dominant issues such as the economy, the war on terrorism, Social Security, and health care," Dowd says. Some reserve and National Guard troops may defect, says an Air Force pilot stationed in Iraq, but he adds: "I don't believe the vast majority of military voters are willing to entrust Democrats with our national security."
Still, GOP pols fret. When the White House threatened to veto a bill that would have let more vets take both disability pay and pensions, irate letters flooded Congress. "It became a flag issue for all veterans," says Representative Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.). "I don't know how much damage it might have done." A chastened Bush backed down and on Nov. 24 signed a record $401.3 billion defense bill that expands veterans' benefits and hikes pay for troops by 4.15%.
But that might be enough to overcome a bad case of tin ear. On Nov. 12, the Office of Management & Budget opposed restoring $1.3 billion in funding for Veterans Administration hospitals that the House Appropriations Committee had cut. "It's as if they're not even aware [that] there's a war on terror going on," says Steve Thomas, an American Legion spokesman and Navy vet who notes casualties in Iraq could make demand for VA services soar.
Seth R. Pollack, a retired Army sergeant who served in the Gulf War and in Bosnia -- and who voted for President Bush's father -- now is president of Veterans for Common Sense, a group opposing Bush's Iraq campaign. He sees widespread disgruntlement: "I don't talk to a veteran who isn't frustrated with the policies of this Administration and the Republican Party."
Democrats will try to exploit this opening, but it will be an uphill battle. Most of the military will remain rock-ribbed Republican. Still, signs of discontent are growing. And as Bush fights for reelection on the home front, he can hardly afford such restive troops.
By Stan Crock in Washington, with William C. Symonds in Boston