Ability To Lead Armed Forces Pivotal In Election

Correction Sept. 8, 2008

Some versions of this story said that Abraham Lincoln "never wore a uniform." Lincoln served briefly as a captain in the Illinois militia.

Last night, John McCain delivered an acceptance speech in which he reiterated his qualifications to be commander in chief. Barack Obama's speech last week was equally emphatic about his ability to lead our armed forces. Does this seem a bit obsessive? Should we, as a nation, focus so much energy on just one part of what it means to be president?

Yes. Being commander in chief is the most important job a president has. I know that might sound like one voter's vanity. I grew up in a military family. I joined the Navy after college. I am what you might call a "military voter." Why should "my" issue matter most?

The truth is that I, and my military buddies, do care about a variety of issues. But on everything else — schools, jobs, health care — executive power is balanced by the other branches. Even foreign policy and defense spending are worked out with Congress. When the commander in chief orders Americans to die for their country, there is no real check-and-balance. That authority is constitutionally protected. When we choose a president, we give one person almost unbridled military power. Short of impeachment, there's not a lot we can do to take it back. That's why even in hugely unpopular wars, presidents are able to exercise powers unimaginable elsewhere in government.

As a "military voter," I know I'm outnumbered. Most of my fellow citizens have never served in uniform. I truly believe, however, that this is one of America's greatest strengths. Think about it — the world's most powerful military commander is a civilian, chosen almost entirely by other civilians.

What, then, makes a good commander in chief? It's not always prior military service. Some of our best wartime leaders never wore a uniform. Judgment matters at least as much as experience — as does integrity and temperament. I suppose this is where I identify the best candidate. Not my job. Our system depends on each voter exercising their own judgment. That's collective wisdom, and it is what makes democracy work.

It's not enough, however, to know the candidates, their strengths and their weakness. Voters must also understand the powers of the office. And none is greater, nor more unrestrained, than those of the commander in chief. That's not just one voter's vanity. That's the Constitution. Come November, when you enter that voting booth, remember that the lives of our men and women in uniform depend on who sits in the Oval Office. It falls to us to choose a leader worthy of commanding them. In the end, we are all military voters.

Ken Harbaugh is executive director of The Center for Citizen Leadership, a nonprofit that helps wounded veterans continue serving their country as community volunteers.

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