Howard Dean faces a choice. Last month, just hours before the Democratic National Committee chose the former Vermont governor to lead it, it did something else: It created an Office of Military and Veterans Outreach. In the coming weeks, Dean will decide what kind of funding and staff this new office receives. And that will prove an early test of whether the Democrats' new chairman is serious about nursing his party back to political health.
To understand why military voters matter to the Democratic Party's fate, consider what African American and Hispanic voters mean to the Republican Party. For four years -- through faith-based initiatives, conservative cultural appeals, Spanish-language infomercials and Cinco de Mayo celebrations -- Karl Rove has labored to bring ethnic minorities into the GOP. His calculation has been twofold. First, African American and Hispanic votes are valuable in and of themselves. Second, African American and Hispanic support helps Republicans overcome their image as exclusionary and hard-hearted -- and that wins over some moderate white voters as well.
For Democrats, the dynamic with military voters is the same. According to last year's exit polls, 18 percent of voters had served, or were serving, in the military -- roughly the same share of the electorate as blacks and Latinos combined. And just as minority support helps Republicans combat their reputation as mean, military support helps Democrats overcome their reputation as weak -- a reputation that particularly alienates non-college-educated white men, whether they have served in the military or not.
Republicans have been conquering their demographic challenge, while Democrats have not. Between 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush increased his share of African American votes from 9 percent to 11 percent, and in key states such as Ohio, he did much better than that. Among Hispanics, Bush's total rose from 35 percent to as much as 44 percent. But despite widespread talk about military disaffection over Iraq, John Kerry won only 41 percent of Americans with military experience. While active-duty, National Guard and Reserve voters are hard to poll scientifically, a survey last October by the Military Times gave Kerry a mere 18 percent.
It wasn't that Kerry didn't try. In fact, during his career in Massachusetts, the former Vietnam Swift boat commander relied heavily on veterans' support, and during the Democratic primaries, veterans came to his aid once again. At the Democratic National Convention, Kerry brought his fellow Vietnam boat mates on stage, along with 12 former generals and admirals. The imagery could hardly have been better.
But it failed. Partly that's because Kerry lacked a clear, compelling message on Iraq and the struggle against extremist Islam. Partly it's because the right smeared him as a duplicitous radical who had fabricated parts of his military record and betrayed his fellow soldiers when he came home. But it's also because in the four years before Kerry was nominated, while Rove was relentlessly reaching out to Hispanics and African Americans, the Democrats hadn't done the same for veterans. Between 1996 and 2004, the percentage of black and Hispanic delegates to the Republican National Convention more than doubled. In the same period, the percentage of veterans serving as Democratic delegates actually fell.
Democrats have been alienated from the military since Vietnam, almost as long as Republicans have been alienated from African Americans. They need a generational strategy to repair the rift. Criticizing the Bush administration for failing to provide current and former troops and their families the medical and other benefits they deserve is a start. So is developing a cadre of national Democrats with real defense expertise -- something the party has often lacked since Sam Nunn left the Senate and Les Aspin the House -- so Democrats can speak the military's language.
But the biggest problem is cultural. Democrats should acknowledge that at times the left's understandable anger over Vietnam degenerated into a lack of respect for the military. And they should make amends in very practical ways -- most significantly, as the Progressive Policy Institute's Will Marshall has pointed out, by shaming America's colleges and law schools into letting the military recruit on campus. Liberal students, faculty and administrators have the right to criticize the Pentagon's discriminatory policies toward gays and lesbians. But it is outrageous for them to treat the U.S. military -- especially in a time of war -- as a pariah. And Howard Dean should go to the college towns where his most stalwart supporters reside and tell them so.
Genuine multiculturalism is not just about race, ethnicity and gender. It's about embracing people whose culture differs from yours, in hopes of finding core principles that you share. Over the past four years, Republicans have done that. Now Democrats must too.
The writer is editor of the New Republic and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. He writes a monthly column for The Post.