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Should Retired Military Officers Endorse Presidential Candidates?

Many retired military leaders think that it would lead to dangerous politicisation of the military while others say that not speaking out was more dangerous than keeping quiet

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as he speaks with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn during a town hall in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Source: VOA
  • During the US Presidential election campaign, many retired military officials decided to show their support by endorsing their favourite presidential candidate at the Democratic and the Republican National Conventions in July this year
  • This week, Donald Trump’s campaign staff released a list to the public with 88 names of senior military officials who supported the Republican nominee, whereas, to counter that list, Hillary’s campaign staff released a list of names of 95 Senior military officials who support her
  • This led to a fresh debate on whether retired military officials should be involved in politics
  • Many senior military officials commented that this may lead to politicisation of the military, whereas, while some officials believe that not taking part would be more dangerous

September 8, 2016: Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn held nothing back as he gave a speech at the Republican National Convention in July, in support of the party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump.

Flynn criticized President Barack Obama, the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces, as “weak and spineless.” He called Hillary Clinton “reckless” and “crooked.”

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And when the crowd began screaming for the Democratic nominee to be imprisoned, Flynn joined in. “That’s right. Lock her up,” said Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

While the speech clearly fired up those gathered in Cleveland, some of Flynn’s colleagues were not impressed, viewing it as a dangerous politicization of the military.

Retired General Martin Dempsey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, slammed his former colleague in a letter to The Washington Post days after the speech.

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“The American people should not wonder where their military leaders draw the line between military advice and political preference,” Dempsey said. He also chastised retired Marine General John Allen, who gave his own passionate speech in defense of Clinton at the Democratic National Convention.

Competing lists

The speeches sparked fresh debate about whether retired senior military officers should become involved in politics. The issue has become even more relevant lately, as both Clinton and Trump roll out long lists of former admirals and generals who endorse their campaigns.

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Trump’s campaign staff released an open letter this week, signed by 88 former military leaders who said they thought the Republican nominee would oversee a “long-overdue course correction” in U.S. foreign policy.

Retired Gen. John Allen stands with veterans as he speaks on the final day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016. Source: VOA
Retired Gen. John Allen stands with veterans as he speaks on the final day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016.
Source: VOA

Not be outdone, Clinton’s camp quickly responded with a list of 95 generals and admirals who support her, boasting that her list of endorsements was greater than that of any other recent Democratic nominee for president.

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The potential benefits of releasing such lists are obvious: They bolster a candidate’s national security credentials and help create the perception that the nation’s military leaders support the candidate, not the opponent.

Dividing line

But when military generals become highly partisan cheerleaders for political candidates, does that blur a necessary line between politics and the military? It depends on whom you ask.

Harley Hughes, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, laughed off the question.

“That couldn’t be more ridiculous,” said Hughes, who signed the letter in support of Trump. In Hughes’ view, not speaking out was more dangerous than any theoretical conversation about the relationship between politics and the military.

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“The stakes of this election are enormous,” Hughes told VOA. “We won’t have very many more chances to make mistakes. That’s why folks like me speak up.”

John Castellaw, a retired Marine lieutenant general who supports Clinton, said he was apolitical during his time in the military, but in retirement, he feels obligated to use his expertise for the good of the country.

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“I think it’s good for military people [to be involved in politics],” Castellaw said. “We tend to be analytical and methodical. We tend to think about what we are going to do before we take action. Our words in most cases are moderate and measured.”

Not illegal

It’s not illegal for retired military figures to enter politics. They have the same rights as any other citizen to run for office and to endorse or criticize those who are. Many retired military leaders have themselves run for elected office, even the presidency.

But some have made the argument that officers’ responsibilities extend into retirement, not least of all because they continue to be paid by the military and they keep their military ranks.

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That’s part of what seemed to upset many about Flynn’s and Allen’s convention speeches: They were introduced as generals and spoke as generals, not simply as “John” or “Mike.”

For many ex-military and intelligence officials, that amounts to a violation of a norm they are not so quick to break.

“I don’t think it’s good for the nation,” said Dennis Wilder, who retired in April after serving for over three decades in several senior intelligence and diplomatic roles. “It’s the precedent it sets.”

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“It wasn’t appropriate for 37 years, and it’s a habit I got into that I’m not getting out of just yet,” he told VOA. “The debate on foreign policy should stop at our shores. We shouldn’t be criticizing each other overseas. I don’t think it’s good for the nation.” (VOA)

Next Story

Economy to Overcome Other Issues in 2020, says Trump

President Donald Trump is hoping that simple message in 2020 will help foil his eventual Democratic Party challenger. 

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President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump attends a Keep America Great Rally at the Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, U.S. VOA

“It’s the economy, stupid” has been a catchphrase of U.S. presidential politics since the 1992 campaign, when Bill Clinton unseated incumbent George H.W. Bush. Nearly three decades later, U.S. President Donald Trump is hoping that simple message in 2020 will help foil his eventual Democratic Party challenger.

Trump — in tweets, at political rallies and in remarks to reporters — constantly emphasizes the performance of the U.S. economy, stock market surges, low unemployment rates and his tax cuts to boast he is doing a great job as president.

Economists and political analysts are divided on whether that message will enable the incumbent to stay in office beyond January 2021.

Culture war, partisan split

Ever since Clinton, “we’ve all kind of assumed that should be true. And I think for the most part, it is,” said Ryan McMaken, senior editor and economist at the Mises Institute, a politics and economics research group in Alabama. He cautioned, though, that Trump finds himself on one side of a culture war that his predecessors did not have to confront, as well as a deep partisan divide on consumer confidence.

Walmart Supercentre
Balo Balogun labels items in preparation for a holiday sale at a Walmart Supercenter, in Las Vegas. Black Friday once again kicks off the start of the holiday shopping season. But it will be the shortest season since 2013 because of Thanksgiving falling on the fourth Thursday in November, the latest possible date it can be. VOA

Policy analyst James Pethokoukis at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, a public policy research group, also is cautious about the economy prevailing over all other issues.

“Just having a strong economy is not going to guarantee you re-election,” he said. “People often point back to the 2000 election, which occurred after a decade of tremendous economic growth any way you want to measure it — gross domestic product, jobs and wage growth. And yet, [Clinton’s vice president] Al Gore still lost that election to George W. Bush.”

McMaken questioned whether voters in key swing states — such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio — who cast ballots for Trump in 2016 were experiencing enough of the touted economic performance to vote again for the president.

Overall, however, “it’s not a bad economy to run on if you’re Donald Trump,” said Pethokoukis.

Trump, said to have concerns about the direction of the economy ahead of next November’s election, will likely push for more tax cuts, passage of a renegotiated North American trade pact and continued pressure on the country’s central banking system, the Federal Reserve, to lower interest rates.

A LB Steel LLC's employee manufactures a component
A LB Steel LLC’s employee manufactures a component for new Amtrak Acela trains built in partnership with Alstom in Harvey, Illinois, U.S. VOA

Trouble ahead?

There are rumblings of economic storm clouds on the horizon. The impact can be seen in Trump’s trade war with China, which has hurt U.S. farmers and raised prices for consumer goods. It’s also reflected in the Institute for Supply Management’s Manufacturing Index, an underperforming U.S. Private Sector Job Quality Index and a ballooning record national debt, in addition to the worrying level of money owed to creditors by middle-class Americans.

“We’ve actually been in a sort of a manufacturing recession, seen a shrinkage of factory jobs, the exact kinds of jobs that I’m sure that people voting for the president thought would be a lot better now,” said Pethokoukis.

So far, none of this has prompted a major stock market correction.

“There seems to be a lot of adaptations in the markets to Trump’s America. That may work to his advantage,” said the Mises Institute’s McMaken.

Analysts note a lack of emphasis on economic platforms so far by the leading Democratic U.S. presidential candidates seeking to oust Trump next year.

But such a platform is likely to be touted when the opposition party holds its convention next July in Milwaukee and picks its campaign ticket. Pethokoukis suggested the Democratic Party should devise a plan with a goal to boost American worker productivity, which has flatlined for years.

The great divide

McMaken pointed out that the widening chasm between the well-off and those struggling economically in the United States makes Trump vulnerable — something emphasized by left-leaning Democratic presidential contenders such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Donald Trump says the economy isn't doing well
Tents and tarps erected by homeless people are shown along sidewalks and streets in the skid row area of downtown Los Angeles, California, U.S. VOA

“On the ground level, I would say just in general, the economy isn’t doing as well,” concluded McMaken.

ALSO READ: Greed For Power May Demolish The Democracy

Amid an impeachment drive by the Democrats, Trump is repeatedly hammering on a specific message to those questioning his suitability for office while being impressed with the performance of their pension accounts during his presidency.

“Love me or hate me, you’ve got to vote for me,” Trump said at a rally in New Hampshire in August, warning that Americans’ investments portfolios would go “down the tubes” if he lost next year’s election. (VOA)