Donald Trump is about to become the first US president to march in the New York City Veteran’s Day Parade. Grandstanding, you say? Hardly.
At one level, Trump is merely repaying the favor of the enormous support he received from veterans and active-duty soldiers when he captured the White House three years ago.
Veterans voted 2-1 for Trump in November 2016, a reversal of the electoral trend after 2004 when a growing share of the nation’s 23 million ex-soldiers and their families – especially those in the lower ranks — began tilting toward the Democrats after the disastrous Iraq War.
In 2016, veterans in swing state counties in the Rust Belt swung sharply behind Trump, possibly providing the margin of difference in traditionally Blue-leaning Michigan and Pennsylvania where the billionaire real estate mogul defeated Hillary Clinton by less than 1% popular vote.
Democrats, especially centrists that support a neoconservative foreign policy, have tended to underestimate the enormous appeal to ex-soldiers of Trump’s “America First” policies as well as his highly publicized efforts to overhaul the Veterans Administration (VA), which has notoriously abused its responsibility to provide medical and other benefits to veterans of America’s military adventures.
Reports of horrific medical fraud and corruption at a number of VA hospitals in the waning days of the Obama administration gave Trump a major campaign issue to use against Clinton. Within five months of taking office, Trump fired Obama’s VA secretary and signed an executive order that granted his successor expanded authority to remove under-performing VA officials and also makes it easier for agency whistle-blowers to come forward to expose VA waste, fraud and abuse.
Trump also ushered in bipartisan legislation to streamline health care delivery even allowing veterans to access private care at public expense, in part, to expedite their claims, which have suffered from enormous backlogs in the past.
Recent polls show that Trump’s support among veterans is considerably higher than among the public at large. For example, in a survey of nearly 1,300 veterans conducted in May-June of this year, 57 percent of respondents said they approved of how Trump was leading the armed forces compared to just 41 percent who said they disapproved.
Among the American public overall, these figures were reversed. 57 percent said they disapproved of Trump’s work as commander in chief, while 41 percent said they approved, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research, a leading nonpartisan polling group, during the same time period.
Military support for other aspects of Trump’s leadership as commander-in-chief is also considerably higher than among the public at large.
For example, majorities of veterans say they back Trump’s positions on sending active-duty troops to the border (58 percent), withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal (53 percent) and banning transgender troops from entering the military (52 percent).
Perhaps, most notably, two-thirds of the veterans surveyed say they believe that Trump “respects” veterans.
Trump’s appearance in New York on Monday marks the kick-off of his re-election campaign’s plans to capitalize on his support among veterans to boost his prospects in 2020
In addition to touting his VA reforms, the president can point to record low unemployment levels among veterans as well as White House support for veteran job training programs and the “Forever G.I. Bill,” which vastly expands veteran education opportunities.
Some Democrats are pushing their party to conduct fresh outreach to ex-soldiers and their families or risk being completely outflanked by the White House as the 2020 campaign begins in earnest.
Three of the Democratic Party’s 2020 candidates, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Rep Moulton (who has since withdrawn from the race) are military veterans, but aside from Buttigieg, their service has tended to stay in the background of their political biographies.
In the 2018 midterm elections, a number of veterans recruited by Democrats as political candidates won seats in the House but that successful gambit hasn’t carried over into the DNC’s broader strategy for 2020.
Notably, in the last two Democratic primary debates held in Texas and Ohio, veterans’ issues got short shrift, which has led to criticism in some circles.
Trump’s appearance at the Monday parade appears to be a shrewd maneuver that has caught the Democrats napping.
Veterans groups have invited every sitting U.S. president – Republican and Democratic alike — to the parade for the past 25 years.
But Trump is the first to commit to an appearance.