GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has taken positions that traditionally generate favorable reaction from military audiences. He wants a tougher response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he has called for increases in U.S. military spending and said he would reverse the force cutbacks that President Obama has recommended because they would “hollow out” the military.
But many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are not being won over by Romney as a future commander in chief.
A group of Virginia military veterans and the Truman National Security Project, a progressive think tank, unveiled new polling data that show that in GOP primaries so far, Romney has underperformed in counties with large populations of veteran voters.
In 18 of the 23 counties with a veteran population of 15 percent, Romney underperformed his statewide numbers by an average of 11 points, said Michael Moschella, political director of the Truman Project.
“We are noticing that young veterans are not connecting with Romney,” he said.
Terron Sims, a West Point graduate who served in Iraq, said veterans have a “firm bull detector” and don’t believe that Romney’s policy positions on national security are realistic.
“Veterans are beginning to realize that GOP candidates have been giving us lip service when it comes to support of veterans and families,” he said.
The Virginia veterans group is particularly skeptical of proposals floated by Romney advisors to privatize benefits and health programs via a voucher system. “This has caused reverberations in the vets community,” he said.
“We don’t mind disagreeing with candidates,” said Jim Morin, also a West Point graduate who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. “But veterans look at Romney and have concerns” that his platform is purely politics, rather than sound policy.
In recent speeches, Romney has express disapproval of the president for being weak on national defense. He particularly blasted Obama for not being forceful enough in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. At the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee March 6, Romney said Obama has been ineffective in containing Iran as a growing threat to Israel. “Hope is not a foreign policy,” Romney said. “The only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our resolve.”
He said that, as president, he would move America in a different direction.
In a Washington Post op-ed article published March 6, Romney also hammered the president for not spending enough on defense. “By increasing our annual naval shipbuilding rate from nine to 15, I intend to restore our position so that our Navy is an unchallengeable power on the high seas,” he wrote. “Just as Reagan sought to defend the United States from Soviet weapons with his Strategic Defense Initiative, I will press forward with ballistic missile defense systems to ensure that Iranian and North Korean missiles cannot threaten us or our allies.”
These calls for a more aggressive U.S. military posture don’t necessarily resonate positively with veterans, said Michael Signer, adjunct professor at Virginia Tech’s master’s program in public and international affairs who works with the Truman Project.
“The attacks on the president are divorced from reality,” he said. “Obama has been focused like a laser on security issues.” He has cut the defense budget, as Congress required, Signer said. The 2013 budget, after a decade of war, “rebalances priorities for the new century, and actually increases spending” over the next five years, he added.
Analyst David Solimini said the polling data points to a narrowing of the so-called “security gap” that has existed between Democratic and Republican candidates. “The differences have been shrinking because of the successes of the Obama administration” in the defense arena, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden and a series of drone strikes that took out prominent leaders of al-Qaida, said Signer.
Recent polls showed that 60 percent of Americans trust the president on national security, he said. “Historically, the GOP has used national security as a wedge” to make people unsure about a candidate’s leadership and to stir concerns about weakness,” he said. “Without that wedge at their disposal they are less likely to be able to pigeonhole” the president.
Michael Breen, also a war veteran and decorated former Army captain, said the president’s new defense strategy that calls for greater U.S. military presence in Asia in fact is being criticized in China for bordering on belligerent.
Breen, who is now vice president of the Truman Project, recently returned from a trip to China and said he was struck by the chilly reception that Obama’s strategy received there. “In academia and within the military, there is a real air of concern in Beijing that the U.S. is shifting very aggressively,” he said. “They see increased funding [in the Pentagon’s budget] for capabilities that are very relevant in Asia, such as space, cyber, long-range precision strike, special operations forces and submarines. “The Chinese are concerned about us being too aggressive,” Breen said.
“Obama has been extremely strong in national security,” he said.
He has impressed many people for his emphasis on high-tech warfare and intelligence in the pursuit of targets, Breen said. Obama’s drone campaign led to the killing of 23 of 30 top al-Qaida commanders in three years, he added. “He is showing us the way we ought to be doing business in the 21st Century.”