Will the Military Answer Hillary's Call in 2016?
When Barack Obama kicked off his first presidential campaign in 2008 as a junior first-term senator from Illinois, it became a political imperative for the greenhorn candidate to obtain the endorsements of retired – but still influential – senior military officers to apply a veneer of credibility to his objectively thin national security credentials. Gaining those same endorsements could again be an engaging subplot to this year's election theater, particularly for the 2008 understudy, Hillary Clinton.
At a Chicago news conference in March 2008, then-senator Obama rolled out ten retired admirals and generals to counter claims by his opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton, that he had not "crossed the threshold to serve as commander in chief." During that flag-draped event, several, such as "Tony" McPeak, the former Air Force chief of staff and a four-star general, stepped forward to offer assurances that they were "comfortable with [Obama's] ability to lead the military." The event was to counter Senator Clinton's claim that she could better "answer the 3 a.m. phone call" that had entered the 2008 presidential race lexicon.
Once Obama was the Democrat nominee, with two wars raging and national security a hot-button issue, those endorsements became indispensable for the run against Republican Senator John McCain, the Navy veteran, Vietnam prisoner of war, and defense hawk. The Obama campaign would eventually exploit the names of more than 70 retired generals and admirals from all four services to burnish his national security qualifications in the eyes of American voters.
Eight years later, national security is once again near the forefront of voter concerns with a long list of pressing issues – terrorism, ISIS, Syria, Iran, Russia, North Korea, and China (among others). While still the presumptive Democrat nominee, but with persistent questions of integrity and honesty hounding her, Mrs. Clinton will need the patronage of such a group to publicly sanction her record on national security and diplomacy, act as proxy character references, and thwart opponents' attempts to gain advantage doing the same.
Considerable obstacles stand in the way of attracting such support, because Clinton's close ties to ill-fated Obama administration foreign policy initiatives, as well as her own record as a senator and secretary of state, are under intense scrutiny and do not sit well with large blocs of voters.
The situation is not unlike 2008. Then, each senior officer would likely have confided he supported Barack Obama for his own personal reasons. In reality, most were driven not so much by any strong confidence in him, but rather by fervent disagreement with the Bush administration, including a Rumsfeld-led Pentagon, over the Iraq war and other decisions related to the broader war on terrorism. One general, representative of that group, was then on record saying the country was "on the wrong course," while another felt that the country "needed a fresh approach to national security."
That same group, now including officers who were on active duty during that period, may recall that Senator Clinton voted to authorize the Iraq war and, in fact, did very little to advance legislation to end the Iraq war. None of her war-related proposals – which often mirrored measures introduced by other senators – ever came up for a vote. Not only did she not develop any policies to mandate a pullout deadline, but she actually opposed such actions until early 2007. Although vocal in her party's criticism of the Bush administration, she was not one of the leaders in Congress to legislate an end to the Iraq war.
Today, ISIS, Syria, and refugees roughly substitute for the Iraq war, and when compounded with Russia, the Iranian nuclear deal, the Middle East, the Keystone pipeline, Cuba, Libya, China, North Korea, trade deals, and immigration, these subjects add to a still longer list of national security issues that large numbers of voters hold the current administration and Clinton – by close association – responsible for. Her public scenes – e.g., her Sunday talk show discussion of Assad as a "reformer," the embarrassingly awkward "reset" with Russia, and the often replayed Benghazi hearing sequence ("What difference at this point does it make?") – only reinforce her ties to Obama administration foreign policy.
A mounting sense that chaos is supplanting order around the world in ways that directly threaten the U.S. appears to be bringing public sentiment full circle back toward a more muscular defense and foreign policy than the current administration – where Clinton had a prominent role – has pursued. Late 2015 polling shows by significant percentages that voters believe that the Obama administration is weak on foreign policy, has no strategy for Syria or ISIS, and projects weakness to our enemies.
Similar criticisms, like those of the Bush-era generals calling for a major change in direction away from administration policy, will vex Clinton's (and the Democrats') campaign. She has already had to tread a fine line to distance herself from Obama administration foreign policy (to include her own actions as his secretary of state) to parry attacks the she would simply be a third Obama term, yet not go so far as to alienate her base and core Obama supporters.
Further confounding her securing any such group's support are the unavoidable conversations about her telling personal lapses. Ranging from the serious (Benghazi with its fallout and the active, still deepening FBI investigation into her handling of classified materials) to the trifling (her claim she dodged sniper fire on an airport tarmac in Bosnia), she runs afoul of a group that still collectively holds the values of integrity, character, and honesty in highest regard.
If polling is any indicator, Mrs. Clinton has few fans in the military from whom to find that support. A late 2015 Rally Point/Rasmussen national survey of active and retired military personnel finds that only 15% have a favorable opinion of her, and just 3% view the former secretary of state "very favorably." She is seen unfavorably by 81%, including 69% who share a "Very Unfavorable" impression. Thirty-one percent of voters say they trust Clinton, with little difference between active service members and veterans when it comes to opinions about her. Other polling suggests that military personnel have also not been dissuaded from backing her main opponents (dubbed the "outsider candidates") by those who contend they have weak foreign policy credentials and do not have recognized experts as national security advisers.
As the military's most senior leaders, these retired admirals and generals all presided over promotion boards for more junior officers to decide on their potential and suitability to serve in higher ranks. Basic military promotion board thinking is to dispassionately evaluate an individual's potential to serve in a higher grade based on his record of capabilities, performance, and results.
After similarly appraising Mrs. Clinton's track record on national security and diplomacy, accompanied by those unavoidable conversations over her integrity and honesty, will that group "promote" her in 2016? Will members of that company of retired senior military leaders answer her call? Given the military's performance-based ethos, coupled with the ideals and standards U.S. military members are held to account for, it seems increasingly likely that few among them would publicly offer up their names and professional reputations for her political fortunes.
Colonel Krisinger retired from the Air Force after 30 years of service. He served two tours as a senior military adviser at the State Department.