Democrats See Benefit Boosts as a Way to Pry Veterans From GOP



Barack Obama is making a concerted push for veterans’ votes in November. He’s getting help from a number of new, liberal-minded veterans’ groups and from the union representing civil servants at the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. They say Democrats can win over the veterans’ vote by offering generous benefits to returning troops.

“The watershed moment is going to be the GI Bill,” said Patrick Campbell, chief legislative counsel for one of the new groups, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “Here you had John McCain opposing a proposal that was endorsed by every veterans’ service organization, endorsed by a majority of the Senate and two-thirds of the House, with huge bipartisan support on either side of the aisle, and John McCain said it’s too generous.”

“For a lot of people, that made them step back and say, ‘I have to at least think about [whether] I ever really thought about who is better for veterans,’ ” he said.

McCain insists that he didn’t oppose the final version of the legislation (PL 110-252), enacted in June, but he didn’t make it to the Senate vote securing its passage. He said he opposed early versions because they did not include provisions allowing soldiers’ family members to use the enhanced education benefits the bill provides. McCain said without the ability to transfer the benefits, soldiers would have little incentive to re-enlist.

To be sure, the best-known veterans’ service organizations, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, have long supported McCain. Both have given him awards in the past, and the VFW’s political action committee has endorsed him for re-election to his Senate seat and to his House seat before that.

Even Campbell recalls that when he arrived in Iraq as an Army sergeant late in 2004 — days before voters re-elected President Bush — his fellow soldiers slapped “W” stickers on their tanks before going out on patrol.

Perceptions Shift
However, criticism of the administration began to mount over its alleged failures to look out for soldiers — from early concerns about a lack of body armor and armored humvees to the fiasco last year over conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Campbell said veterans have begun to think twice, especially considering that the Democratic congressional majority succeeded last year in pushing through increases in the Veterans Affairs budget and this year secured the new GI Bill, which will provide expanded educational benefits to returning veterans, over initial opposition by the Bush administration.

“They put their money where their mouth is,” Campbell said.

IAVA was founded in 2004 by Paul Rieckhoff, who served as an Army lieutenant during the initial ground invasion of Iraq, and Phillip Carter, an Army officer who helped train Iraqi police in 2005 and 2006. Carter now heads Veterans for Obama, an outreach arm of the Obama campaign.
Unlike McCain, Obama has pledged to pursue the IAVA’s next big agenda item: mandatory mental health screenings for soldiers returning from combat.

On Wednesday morning, IAVA teamed with Michelle Obama to put together care packages for military personnel abroad.

Another new group, VoteVets.org, founded in 2006, sponsored an event at the Denver Athletic Club on Tuesday.

The group has criticized the administration for its handling of the Iraq War and is running ads on Colorado television stations this week against former Rep. Bob Schaffer, arguing that Schaffer — a Republican who is pursuing Colorado’s open Senate seat this November — is more concerned about Iraqi oil than veterans’ benefits.

These new veterans’ groups are also getting help from a stalwart of Democratic politics, the American Federation of Government Employees, the employee union for many of the civil servants at the VA and Defense departments. Its president, John Gage, held a briefing with reporters Aug. 26 in which he pledged to “hammer” McCain on the veterans issue.

McCain gets a lot of breaks from veterans “because of his war record,” Gage said. “But it hasn’t meant anything in terms of taking care of vets when they come home.”


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