The once-wide pool of presidential hopefuls has recently narrowed to just 14 Democratic candidates, while President Donald Trump is the very clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Since the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump on Dec. 18, the divide between parties has seemed to grow even more cavernous, with each claiming they know what’s best for the American people.
Since Trump took office in January 2017, the U.S. has seen record-low unemployment rates that many have lauded as an indicator of a booming economy. However, the federal deficit has increased by 68% — from the $585 billion he inherited from Obama, to a whopping $984 billion, according to Newsweek.
Trump’s first term has been largely defined by controversial immigration policies, judiciary appointments that include the Supreme Court — which is now majority GOP — and a fair amount of executive action. In one word, it can be described as aggressive.
Rising tensions in the Middle East, mass deployments of military personnel, and the U.S. airstrike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani have overtaken national news, but are only fanning the fire of election speak. Democratic candidates have all responded to Trump’s decision to take out Soleimani, and have also provided some insight on what they might do instead.
Hot topics going into election season include healthcare, college tuition and debt, foreign affairs, climate change, and, of course, taxes. But let’s take a look at how things are shaping up for the military.
Here’s an overview of the top five presidential candidates on the military — including decisions they’ve made about it in the past, and promises for the future.
Donald Trump is the incumbent president of the United States, giving him a natural advantage over the other 2020 candidates. He’s most known for being a reality TV star and businessman with an estimated net worth in the billions. His 2016 campaign — marked by his slogan “Make America Great Again” — largely capitalized on Americans’ distrust of politicians. Born and raised in New York, Trump is the son of a successful real-estate developer and a Scottish immigrant.
Trump on Military
Trump has been very active as commander in chief since his inauguration. His administration has set an unprecedented pace of military spending: signing legislation for $700 billion in 2018 and $716 billion in 2019. His 2020 budget proposal includes $750 billion in defense spending alone.
On January 4, after ordering a U.S. airstrike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, Trump tweeted: “The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way…and without hesitation!”
This tweet marks a significant ramping-up of military spending that will likely continue, and comes amidst mass deployments to the Middle East. And Trump has not been shy to move military personnel around: from sending thousands to the U.S.-Mexico border in October 2018, to suddenly withdrawing forces from Northern Syria in October 2019.
An upside for troops is the 3.1% pay raise they just received this January. However, it should be noted that it is not “the largest increase in a decade,” as Trump claimed. In 2009, service members received a 3.9% pay raise, and a year later they received a 3.4% increase in pay.
So what does the military think of Trump?
In a Military Times poll conducted in December, half of active duty service members hold an unfavorable view of Trump. The same poll showed that 42% approve of him and 8% are neutral. In comparison, Veterans are some of Trump’s biggest fans — a separate Military Times poll from July shows that 57% of Veterans approved of how Trump is leading the armed forces. Only 41% disapproved.
These numbers may have to do with the active military demographic. Trump consistently polls higher with men, Caucasians, and older Americans, so in an increasingly young and diverse military, it makes sense that he would poll lower.
Should you vote for Trump?
It’s difficult to identify Trump’s overall stance on the military because his actions often do not align with his words. One of his core campaign promises was to take America out of the Middle East, and in a foreign policy briefing in October, he said: “The plan is to get out of endless wars, to bring our soldiers back home, to not be policing agents all over the world.” His words were then refuted by his decision to take out Soleimani and send more troops to the region.
Some may describe Trump’s leadership as decisive, while others would call it rash and impulsive. Ultimately, he makes big decisions regarding military spending and personnel, and usually without congressional consultation. He is a huge proponent for increasing defense spending, and has used military power both overseas and at our southern border.
Trump is the only presidential candidate who’s planning on increasing the military budget if he’s reelected. So if you agree that America’s defense budget should keep climbing, Trump should probably be your guy in 2020. However, if you think that money would be put to better use elsewhere, you may want to look to the top Democratic candidates.
Joseph Biden Jr. is a former U.S. senator from Delaware — the sixth-youngest elected in American history, when he assumed this role in 1972. Before his career as a politician, he was a lawyer. He is best known as the 47th Vice President of the United States, running and winning two elections alongside President Barack Obama.
Biden has a reputation for having little filter over his words, though perhaps that appeals to Republicans in Congress; his ability to negotiate with the other party helped pass key legislation during the Obama Administration. He has even expressed the possibility that he will choose a Republican running mate.
According to data from Jan. 3 from the New York Times, Biden is the current frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, leading Sen. Bernie Sanders by 8% with a 27% national polling average.
Biden on Military
As a chair and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden’s history with the military is long and involved. He opposed the Gulf War in 1991, but just three years later he advocated for U.S. intervention in the Bosnian War. He voted to send American soldiers to Iraq following 9/11, but disagreed with sending more in 2007. He did end up being a key contributor to the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011.
Biden’s statement on the killing of Qassem Soleimani speaks to his platform as a moderate Democrat and as a negotiator. It begins: “No American will mourn Qassem Soleimani’s passing. He deserved to be brought to justice for his crimes against American troops and thousands of innocents throughout the region.”
However, he goes on to say that Trump should not have escalated tensions with Iran. “I fear this Administration has not demonstrated at any turn the discipline or long-term vision necessary — and the stakes could not be higher.”
The statement echoed what many Democrats were already saying, with no true call-to-action; most of all, it didn’t define how he will approach this conflict if he finds himself in the Oval Office next January. In recent debates, he seems to be distancing himself from his past positions on Iraq, but it’s not clear if he believes this means we should leave the region.
Biden’s website does, however, comprehensively list what he plans to accomplish for military families. His main focuses include:
- Paying service members a competitive wage
- Providing resources for military spouses, caregivers, and survivors
- Prioritizing support for military children
He goes on to explain how he will compensate military members to keep pace with the economy, lengthen the time between PCSs, give more education and job opportunities to military spouses, end financial burdens for survivors, and much more.
Should you vote for Biden?
Biden is one of the most moderate Democratic candidates, and also the “safe” choice for the DNC. He comes with a track record of somewhat-successful bipartisan legislation, and he’s cited his decades of foreign relations experience as the reason he’s most prepared to take up the presidency. However, his traditional approach to foreign policy will likely rely on rebuilding NATO alliances, and any withdrawal from the Middle East will probably be slow. He’s also known for fumbling his words, which is likely not something Democratic voters are looking for after four years of Trump’s tweets.
If you’re hoping for a more centrist president who will try to unite Democrats and Republicans after years of vicious contention, then Biden could be the candidate for you. However, if you’re seeking either increased defense spending or a decisive withdrawal from the Middle East, you might need to look elsewhere.
Bernard Sanders is a U.S. senator from Vermont. He is also a ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, and served as the chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee from 2013 to 2015. Sanders put up a good fight against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016, and four years later, his vast base of supporters is still “feeling the Bern.”
The Sanders’ campaign can be described as a “grassroots campaign” and boasts the largest number of individual donations, generating $61.5 million thus far — a cool $10 million over Pete Buttigieg, who has the next-largest. Sanders often mentions his working class background — as the son of a poor immigrant family in Brooklyn — and hopes to tackle the massive wealth inequality that has gripped America.
He is, perhaps, the one candidate that voters can take at his word: given that he’s been saying the same thing since he was elected to the House in 1991, since he was a mayor in the 1980s, and since his early days as a political activist during the Vietnam War.
Sanders on Military
A self-described democratic socialist, Sanders has opposed pretty much every U.S. war since Vietnam, through both words and votes. Furthermore, he describes the Iraq War as “the worst foreign policy blunder in American modern history.” He is one of few Democrats to have opposed the war outright and from the start.
He’s also taken immediate action against war with Iran. Just days after the U.S. airstrike on Iranian Gen. Soleimani, Sanders and fellow progressive Ro Khanna introduced a bill to halt funding for military force against Iraq without approval from Congress. He expressed his sentiments on war over social media:
“After 16 years of war in Iraq, trillions of dollars, the deaths of 4,500 U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the Iraqi government is now trying to throw us out of their country. All that suffering, all that death, all that huge expenditure of money, for what?”
While his foreign policy experience doesn’t measure up to Biden’s, Sanders will likely be quick to end American military participation in the Middle East — though he intends to try to rebuild the region before abandoning it.
In fact, he recently led a bipartisan effort to withdraw U.S. support for the war in Yemen, which Trump vetoed shortly thereafter. Though he would cut military defense spending, he would likely increase spending to counteract Veteran homelessness and provide Veterans with better healthcare and support.
As far as military families and Veterans go, Sanders’ website details how he has supported and will continue to support them. Sanders has helped create and pass legislation such as:
- The 2008 Post-9/11 GI Bill
- The Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014
- The Veterans Choice Act
- The Homeless Veterans Prevention Act of 2013
Surprisingly, Sanders has received more donations from military personnel than any other candidate, including Trump.
Should you vote for Sanders?
Sanders is an experienced politician whose once “radical” ideas are becoming less radical to many Democrats and Independents. He is probably the most progressive Democratic candidate, and his voters unite behind his proposals for Medicare for All, free college, action against climate change, and closing the gaping class divide in America.
If you’re looking for the U.S. to stop involving itself in foreign wars and turn its attention to issues on the homefront, Sanders could be the best pick for you. He advocates for an “international,” or cooperative, foreign policy approach that involves leading by example instead of by force. However, if you’re convinced the U.S. needs to bolster its military through an increased defense budget, you’ll be better suited with another candidate.
Elizabeth Warren is a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, and formerly worked as a law school professor. She jump-started her political career after the Great Recession, when she fought for tighter regulations on banking and helped create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Her reputation largely centers around being an academic and book author. She was the first Democratic candidate to lay out her plans for a wealth tax.
Currently, Warren holds a 16% national polling average, placing her in third place among the Democratic candidates — 3% behind Sanders and 11% behind Biden. Her platform speaks to her roots as a member of the struggling middle class: She wants to close the class divide, ensuring that the federal government works for all people — not just the wealthy.
Warren on Military
Although Warren is 70 years old, her career in Congress is still young, so there’s not a whole lot of history to analyze here. It is worth noting that Warren, along with Sanders, voted against Trump’s military budget increase in 2019. She believes that, “A strong military should act as a deterrent so that most of the time, we won’t have to use it.”
Under Warren, the United States will likely see a significant cut in military spending and an end to troops in the Middle East. Actually, her Medicare for All plan is funded by this decrease in military spending; she plans to take $800 billion from the defense budget over 10 years, or roughly $77 billion per year.
Warren comes from a family of service members. All three of her brothers served, and her father was an Army flight instructor in World War II. As such, she recently released a detailed plan on how she will protect and expand benefits for service members and Veterans.
This plan covers various issues that the military community faces. Highlights include:
- Raising military pay
- Eliminating military sexual assault
- Ending Veteran homelessness
- Expanding the GI Bill (and wiping out college debt up to $50,000)
Should you vote for Warren?
Warren’s campaign is undoubtedly a bit controversial. From her false claim of Native American heritage, to the fact that she was a Republican until 1996, many Democrats fear that she is simply not likable enough to win the presidency. However, her extensive law background — specifically her knowledge in the financial sector — makes her a prime candidate for decreasing America’s growing deficit.
If you’re looking for an end to the war in the Middle East and an emphasis on free education and Veteran’s benefits, Warren could be your ideal candidate. However, if you don’t support a major restructuring of the defense budget, she’s definitely not for you.
Peter Buttigieg is an outlier in many respects. He’s the only top Democratic candidate without congressional experience. He’s the first openly gay man to make a bid for the Democratic nomination. And, he’s the only Veteran with a real shot at the presidency.
He’s also younger than the next-youngest top candidate — by 33 years.
Buttigieg is a Harvard grad and worked on several Democratic campaigns in the 2000s. He joined the U.S. Navy Reserve in 2009, and won the race for mayor of South Bend, Indiana in 2012. He served two terms — taking a leave of absence in 2014 so he could deploy to Afghanistan.
Buttigieg’s platform is more moderate than that of Sanders and Warren. He supports democratic capitalism, and his plan for universal healthcare will let Americans keep their private insurance if they want to. However, he mirrors the other Democratic candidates on issues such as climate change, which he views as a threat to national security.
Buttigieg on Military
As a Veteran, Buttigieg is the only candidate who can truly understand the sacrifice of American service members — although critics say that he leans too heavily on his service to make up for his general lack of experience.
During his seven-month deployment to Afghanistan, his job as a naval intelligence officer was to find and disrupt terrorist finance networks. Additionally, he served as an armed driver for his commander on over 100 trips to Kabul — a position he refers to as the “military Uber.” He was honorably discharged from the Navy in 2017, after being awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal and the Joint Meritorious Unit Award.
Although he served honorably, Buttigieg firmly disagrees with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He recently told the Iowa Press that the invasion of Iraq was, “The worst foreign policy decision made by the United States in my lifetime,” and denounced Biden for supporting it. In a Buttigieg presidency, Americans are likely to see a decrease in military spending.
In response to the recent airstrike on Iranian Gen. Soleimani, Buttigieg said: “Somebody who has been on the ground as an intelligence officer, understanding what’s at stake in these issues, is bringing the exact kind of bearing that we are going to need.”
His position on Veterans includes the following points:
- Fully fund the VA
- Create a position for White House coordinator between the VA and DoD
- Provide transition assistance for military spouses
- Improve access to education
- Help eliminate military sexual assault
- Rescind the transgender military ban
Should you vote for Buttigieg?
Mayor Pete connects with a wide variety of American voters. His status as a Veteran garners him support from Middle America, his youth sets him apart from the other Dems — who are rapidly “aging out” — and his progressive stances on climate change and LGBTQ+ rights appeal to younger generations.
If you think being in the military should be a prerequisite for leading it, Buttigieg is the candidate for you; he’s set on ending American involvement in the Middle East, and will make decisions based on his own experience in Afghanistan. However, if you’d prefer a candidate whose resume includes a congressional seat, you’ll need to cast your vote for someone else.
Who Should Military Families Vote For?
So, there’s not a real answer to the question, “Who should military families vote for in 2020?”
Overall, there’s no way to determine which candidate is “best” for military families, because each military family is different. Some may prioritize a bulky and weaponized military, while others prefer to know they are safe from dangerous deployments. Even still, learning the stances of the presidential candidates on the military is crucial to making an informed decision when election time rolls around.
Who will be receiving your vote?