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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Will Trump’s Draft Deferrments, Diss of Khan Family Cut into His Support from Vets?

In their New York Times article, “Donald Trump’s Draft Deferments: Four for College, One for Bad Feet,” Steve Eder and Dave Philipps report that during the Vietnam War era Trump:

…stood 6 feet 2 inches with an athletic build; had played football, tennis and squash; and was taking up golf. His medical history was unblemished, aside from a routine appendectomy when he was 10.

But after he graduated from college in the spring of 1968, making him eligible to be drafted and sent to Vietnam, he received a diagnosis that would change his path: bone spurs in his heels.

The diagnosis resulted in a coveted 1-Y medical deferment that fall, exempting him from military service as the United States was undertaking huge troop deployments to Southeast Asia, inducting about 300,000 men into the military that year.

The deferment was one of five Mr. Trump received during Vietnam. The others were for education.

Trump’s military deferrment history is not so different from that of many young men during the era. But Trump has called attention to himself with comments disparaging Sen. John McCain’s p.o.w. experience, explaining, “I like people who weren’t captured.”  He has also been criticized for disrespecting the grieving Khan family, who lost their son, Captain Humayun Khan, in the Iraq war.

As for Trump’s actual physical condition at the time, Philipps and Eder note,

Mr. Trump’s public statements about his draft experience sometimes conflict with his Selective Service records, and he is often hazy in recalling details.

In an interview with The New York Times last month, Mr. Trump said the bone spurs had been “temporary” — a “minor” malady that had not had a meaningful impact on him. He said he had visited a doctor who provided him a letter for draft officials, who granted him the medical exemption. He could not remember the doctor’s name.
“I had a doctor that gave me a letter — a very strong letter on the heels,” Mr. Trump said in the interview.
Further, report the authors,

For many years, Mr. Trump, 70, has also asserted that it was “ultimately” the luck of a high draft lottery number — rather than the medical deferment — that kept him out of the war.

But his Selective Service records, obtained from the National Archives, suggest otherwise. Mr. Trump had been medically exempted for more than a year when the draft lottery began in December 1969, well before he received what he has described as his “phenomenal” draft number.

Because of his medical exemption, his lottery number would have been irrelevant, said Richard Flahavan, a spokesman for the Selective Service System, who has worked for the agency for three decades.

The article goes on to note that Bill Clinton received a student deferrment and George Bush II avoided serving in Vietnam by joining the National Guard. A record of military service is no longer considered an essential requirement for a presidential candidate. But Trump is the first nominee of a major political party to disparage the service of a p.o.w. or the grieving family of a soldier. He has all but invited the storm of criticism he has received for disrespecting veterans and their families.

Trump has been blasted for his comments about the Khan family by Sen. McCain and Gold Star families and veterans groups. But it remains unclear whether Trump’s comments will cut into his share of the votes of military veterans and their families.

On Monday night in Carson City, NV the mother of a military veteran confronted Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, about Trump’s comments, the Trump-friendly crowd reportedly “turned on her.”  Pence, whose son is serving in the Marines, handled the situation with intelligence and tact, in stark contrast to Trump.

In a new SurveyUSA poll of Georgia residents, Trump still leads among military households by 16 points. Republicans in congress and the White House have been far less generous than Democrats for decades in supporting veterans benefits, but the GOP still seems to have an edge with the votes of veterans.

A Morning Consult poll conducted back in March found that “about half of veterans and members of veteran households view the bombastic businessman more favorably than Clinton…Almost 46 percent of respondents in military households have a “very unfavorable” view of Clinton, while 35 percent feel similarly about for Trump.”

The dust-up about the grieving Khan family may lead to a narrowing of the difference between support for the two candidates. But it appears that targeting ‘veterans’ as a distinct political entity may not be a productive way to allocate campaign resources, since they are divided by demographic subgroups, including class, race, gender and region.

Historically, Republicans have arguably been more adept at projecting patriotic rhetoric in recent decades than have Democrats. But many political commentators have noted that, in the 2016 Democratic convention, Democrats presented patriotic themes more effectively than did the GOP in their convention. The lesson here may be that, while track record on specific issues is important, a political party has to sell it well, or it won’t matter much on election day.

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