So in the interest of not constantly engaging in extemporaneous noodling, I went back to read Timothy Noah’s piece on why Presidential candidates who play the “war hero card” have lost recently to candidates without military experience. My theory, building off Matt Yglesias’ argument that candidate success has more to do with the political environment than “campaign” factors, was that the opportunity cost of emphasizing “biography” meant less time on issues pertinent to the political environment, thus worsening an already bad situation. In any event, the good news is that it turns out Noah’s piece was completely devoid of any such theory so I can safely claim credit for the idea. The bad news is that I don’t think my theory captures the whole story.
To take the theory a step further (or perhaps back, but who knows), it seems more likely that “biography candidates” win the nomination when the political environment doesn’t permit for candidates to build their case on much else (i.e., a Republican in a recession or a Democrat after 9/11). I’d have to take this back a bit — and obviously, it doesn’t apply to incumbent candidates — but it’s certainly been true in 2008 and 2004. In 2008, John McCain emerged from a particularly weak field, and though some may contend McCain’s embrace of the surge saved his candidacy, McCain was well positioned to impugn Mitt Romney’s patriotism by his own war hero status. What’s more, the RNC made no pretense that John McCain’s biography wouldn’t be a large focus. Sarah Palin’s speech the night prior set the tone, “there is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you” and McCain’s acceptance speech was a virtual self hagiography. Of course, had the Republicans opted for another tack, it’s still unlikely they would have won, but it seems plausible relentless focus on John McCain’s biography hamstrung the campaign’s ability to focus on the issues voters worried about.
The same argument can be constructed for John Kerry’s run in 2004, with the one caveat that retrospectively, the 2004 field wasn’t as poor as it seemed at the time (Howard Dean is now hailed as a visionary). Still, John Kerry emerged as a candidate largely because mainstream Democrats failed to form a cohesive and strong argument against neoconservative foreign policy, probably the most contentious issue of the campaign. Conventional wisdom dictated that John Kerry’s war hero status would neutralize George Bush’s edge on aggressive foreign policy, but in reality, the effort was superficial. Emphasis on John Kerry’s military service obscured any argument counter to the neoconservative vision, not only signaling weakness, but also further deteriorating an already weak position by limiting opportunities to present the argument on its own terms.
Understanding that political conditions transcend the importance of the candidate, political parties should recognize victory is impossible without credibly addressing the most salient trends in a given election year. Nominating a candidate ill equipped to wrangle from a position of strength will dim electoral prospects, no matter how compelling their biography may be. This has been especially true for war heroes.