The Veterans of Foreign Wars entered politics with a bang when it shocked observers by endorsing Ronald Reagan over former submarine commander Jimmy Carter. Speaking in Chicago, where he accepted the unprecedented honor from the previously apolitical group, Reagan made headlines across the country by declaring the Vietnam War a “noble cause.”
The speech is among Reagan’s most famous some 30 years later, but the organization that endorsed him is now in mortal peril, thanks mainly to the conservative movement he launched. This week, VFW commander in chief Richard Eubank announced he was removing the entire 11-person board of the VFW Political Action Committee, effectively ending its participation in the 2010 election.
Eubank’s announcement came after, as he put it in one online statement, “extreme negative publicity” over the PAC’s endorsements, much of it from conservative news outlets like Hot Air and The Washington Times, which decried an “election betrayal” in an editorial this week. The criticism centered almost entirely on the endorsement of Democratic incumbents who were running against veterans or had drawn particular ire from the military community over perceived slights.
Kurt Schlicter, an attorney and Army veteran, took to Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government to condemn the endorsements, dubbing the move a “Suicide PAC(T)” in his posts. A California resident, Schlicter told The Daily Beast he was offended by the VFW PAC’s backing of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), recalling how he used to vent with his parents over the phone from his Saudi Arabia post about her opposition to the first Gulf War.
“Barbara Boxer had a fundraiser with Jane Fonda this year,” he said, referring to the anti-war actress once dubbed “Hanoi Jane” for her 1972 visit to North Vietnam. “You just can’t do that, it’s unacceptable to the vast majority of veterans.”
One incumbent endorsement that drew particularly heated protests online was Florida Democrat Ron Klein, who is being challenged by Allen West, a former Army officer who was forced out after admitting to abusing an Iraqi policeman during an interrogation but is extremely popular in conservative circles. The PAC, which is an independent organization but is connected to the VFW, also riled up the right in that state by backing Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson. Arguably the most hated Democrat in the House among conservatives, he has called for an end to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Benny Bachand, quartermaster for the Florida VFW, said his office was inundated with calls complaining about the decision, the strongest reaction to any VFW-PAC endorsement he can recall since, well, Reagan.
“The mood of the country has never been like it is right now,” Bachand said.
Bachand insisted that the PAC was a separate entity and not under VFW control, as did national VFW officials. But as the shouting grew louder, Eubank called on the PAC to rescind the endorsements. When it publicly refused, Eubank took the unprecedented measure of recalling the board en masse.
Tyrone Benson, chairman of the now defunct VFW-PAC board and an active member since 1977, blamed the conflict on the political climate, in which a grassroots conservative revival is threatening to oust dozens of Democratic incumbents across the country.
“Everyone is upset with Congress, and I don’t think it has anything to do with the VFW,” said Benson. “I’m sure the NRA and the AARP and the other 5,000 PACs are probably going through the same thing.”
“Everyone is upset with Congress, and I don’t think it has anything to do with the VFW,” said Benson. “I’m sure...the other 5,000 PACs are probably going through the same thing.”
The NRA has indeed faced similar criticism from the right this year over its endorsements of 58 Democratic House incumbents. Benson defended the PAC’s methodology in determining its slate of candidates, which strictly examined how members voted on bills related to veterans’ issues, mostly benefits. The process has always produced an inherent tilt toward incumbents and generated some light criticism in the past from the other side of the aisle as a result, as in 2006, when Democrats complained after the VFW-PAC declined to back challengers Jim Webb, a Silver Star winner, and Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs in Iraq. The VFW believes that the PAC’s formula should have factored in recommendations from state- and district-level branches this year, but Benson said the committee gave up on soliciting their advice after receiving low response rates on such requests in the past.
Jerry Newberry, director of communications for the VFW, said his organization has received some complaints about Republican endorsements as well but that the primary factor behind the decision to recall the board was the PAC’s pro-incumbent leaning—and in a Republican wave election, that cuts in only one direction. Newberry added that this year there were few controversial bills pertaining to veterans, so it was difficult for incumbents not to qualify for an endorsement.
But it appears that coming up with a new formula with which to back pro-veteran incumbents is more trouble than it is worth. Eubank’s plan is to dissolve the VFW-PAC entirely, but he has to wait until the membership assembles in August to get their approval.
Correction: original version misstated Ronald reagans military service.
Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.