By Jason Stanford
The times, they are a-changin.'
Forgive the anachronistic reference to a Bob Dylan song, but it's in the service of a point. There was a time when his music, as well as the war he protested, was relevant in American politics. Whether presidential candidates avoided service evoked painful memories of a war we only remembered but never celebrated. Dodging the draft made Dan Quayle look elitist, Bill Clinton slippery, and George W. Bush dishonest.
But now Dylan's music plays on the oldies station, and not even the most ardent Democratic activists seem to care about Mitt Romney's draft dodging. Even in these hyper-partisan times, the fact that four deferments kept Romney out of Vietnam seems to get less attention than how he took his dog on a family vacation. Almost four decades after cease fire in Vietnam, whether someone dodged the draft has become something that we used to talk about, like nuclear disarmament, the line-item veto, and Japanese manufacturing.
Under the old rules, Vietnam might have been Romney's Waterloo. Mitt Romney ducked service in Vietnam by getting student deferments to attend Stanford University where he exercised his right to be wrong by protesting in favor of the Vietnam War. Then, because Mormon missionaries are classified as ministers, he got to spend 31 months in France spreading Joseph Smith's version of the Gospel.
That's not quite the story Romney tells these days. Though he drew a high number and avoided the draft when his deferments ended, Romney parsed his words too finely when he said, "It was not my desire to go off and serve in Vietnam, but nor did I take any actions to remove myself from the pool of young men who were eligible for the draft."
I bear Romney no ill will for avoiding Vietnam. I think everyone should have spent Vietnam in France, and if I'm ever in a position to do so I'll pull every string necessary to prevent my sons from dying for a politician's folly. My dad volunteered during Vietnam but was stationed in West Germany (Gott sei dank), and he agrees with me.
Maybe if Romney had served, he'd agree with my dad. But nowadays Romney tries to make it sound like his backpack in France had an "I'd rather be in Vietnam" patch. "I was supportive of my country," Romney said in 2007. "I longed in many respects to actually be in Vietnam and be representing our country there."
Whether Romney is telling the God's honest truth about the Vietnam War is now more a moral question than a political question. Military service still comes up in campaigns these days, but we've got new wars to fight about. Last week, Illinois Republican Rep. Joe Walsh said his Democratic opponent Tammy Duckworth—who lost both her legs to a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq—was not a "true hero" because "that's all she talks about." That controversy has received more attention than Romney's Vietnam War deferments. (Full disclosure: I am consulting for a super PAC that is targeting several Republican congressmen, including Rep. Walsh.)
We're long past the time in American politics when serving in Vietnam protected one from charges of cowardice. Republicans famously swiftboated Sen. John Kerry in 2004 despite the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts he earned in Vietnam. In 2002, Democratic Senator Max Cleland—who lost both legs and an arm to a grenade in Vietnam—lost his U.S. Senate seat when Republicans attack ads compared him to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
In 2008, Barack Obama only had to promise to bring the troops home from two unpopular wars to defeat Sen. John McCain, a legitimate hero from a war that produced little legitimacy and few heroes. Now, despite Obama getting Osama bin Laden, Romney has a big lead among veterans, 58 percent to 34 percent, and the late night comedians aren't even bothering to give him the same treatment that Quayle, Clinton, and Bush got.
Checking the military service box has been important in American presidential elections since the Revolutionary War, but there are better reasons not to vote for Romney, most notably his hollow soul and serial mendacity. The Walsh-Duckworth dustup proved we'll never run out of wars, but when it comes to Vietnam, maybe we've moved on. Don't think twice, it's all right.