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McCain’s Pro-Vet Image Clashes With Record

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/mccaincrop-300x200.jpgSen. John McCain (Photo by: Lauren Victoria Burke)

PHOENIX — Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, continues to hold a substantial lead over his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, among military veterans — despite the fact that Obama has consistently voted for higher increases in veterans’ health-care spending and advocated sweeping reforms at the Depart. of Veteran Affairs.

The most recent Gallup poll of registered voters, conducted in mid-August shortly before the Republican National Convention, showed that among those who had served in the military, 56 percent backed McCain, compared to 34 percent for Obama. Among all registered voters, Obama led McCain 46 percent to 43 percent.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The poll found that veterans favored McCain not because he is considered a war hero after his almost six years as a POW in North Vietnam. Rather, Gallup emphasized that because most veterans tend to be Republican–47 percent said they were Republican or leaned toward being so– they were simply backing their party’s presidential nominee.

Obama has certainly worked hard for veterans issues. As a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, the Illinois senator has pushed to end benefit disparities between veterans with combat and noncombat experience; get homeless vets off the streets; improve their mental health-care benefits; increase Depart. of Veteran Affairs funding and overhaul the administration of all vet benefits.

But Obama never served in the military. For some veterans, like many who attended the American Legion’s annual convention last month in Phoenix, that is what counts, not their allegiance to the GOP.

One was Vietnam veteran Bernard Randall, 63. He told me that he supports McCain because “he’s a veteran” with “more experience than Obama.” Randall, an Apache who served in the Marines in 1967-68, said health care is his top issue, and that McCain is more likely to do something about it. Randall’s views were echoed by a dozen other conventioneers, even after they watched a video of Obama addressing the gathering.

But is Randall’s and the other vets’ faith in McCain justified?

Not according to several veterans’ organizations that have given McCain low marks for his overall voting record on vet issues.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a non-partisan advocacy group, gave McCain a “D” in 2006, while Obama earned a “B+.” The Vietnam Veterans of America reported that on 31 “key votes” between 2001 and 2008 on issues including veterans’ health-care funding and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, McCain opposed its positions 15 times, while supporting it eight times. In contrast, Obama, since elected to the Senate in 2004, backed the group’s stands 12 out of 13 times. The Disabled Veterans of America said McCain supported its positions 20 percent of the time in 2006, compared to Obama’s 80 percent.

There are several examples of the conflicting McCain and Obama votes, including McCain’s opposition to five bills that would increase funding for veteran healthcare programs and related facilities. A full list of those bills is available here.

Before Obama came to the Senate, McCain also cast votes against obtaining better equipment for troops. In 2003, for example, he voted to table an amendment that called for an additional $322 million for safety equipment for military forces in Iraq. The measure would have reduced reconstruction funds for Iraq by the same amount. In April 2003, he voted to table an amendment, that passed 52-47, to provide more than $1 billion in equipment for the National Guard and reserves to reduce a shortage of helmets, bullet-proof armor and other gear

McCain said that while the National Guard spending amendment included items “nice to have,” he condemned it because it was presented as an emergency measure and had not gone through the normal process with open debate. “This is neither the appropriate nor, I believe, fiscially the responsible thing to do at this time,” McCain said, “I urge a ‘no’ vote.”

Whether McCain’s relatively low rankings by veterans’ groups will drive a substantial number of vets to vote for Obama remains to be seen. For now, McCain enjoys strong support from veterans who hold his military service and experience as a POW in high regard. “He gets a lot of veteran support because most veterans have extreme respect for what he went through in the military,” retired Navy Capt. Mike Lumpkin, a Democrat who is running for a congressional seat in eastern San Diego County, told me. Lumpkin is a member of Obama’s veterans advisory group, Next Generation Veterans for Obama, and appeared on stage at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Lumpkin, who served 21 years as a Navy SEAL, said that he knows how powerful a record of military service can be in attracting voters. He told me he’s attracting strong crossover support from Republicans with military backgrounds in his congressional race. “There is an inherent bond and respect, especially for a career military officer,” he said.

In fact, McCain is also attracting significant cross-over support among veterans who are or lean Democrat — about 17 percent, according to the Gallup poll. Overall, McCain is the choice of 89 percent of vets who say they are Republican, while Obama wins 75 percent of veterans who say they are Democratic.

McCain’s support among veterans is comparable to that of President George W. Bush in 2004, who drew the support of 55 percent of veterans, against Sen. John Kerry’s 39 percent, in the last Gallup poll before the presidential election. Bush served stateside in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, while Kerry saw action in Vietnam and was wounded. Vets’ strong support for Bush, despite Kerry’s military record, is an another indication of their affinity for the Republican Party, according to Gallup.

Other polls echo Gallup’s August findings that McCain enjoys an advantage among veterans. Rasmussen Reports’ national telephone survey, conducted July 21-22, of 3,000 likely voters, which included 588 respondents who served in the military, found that veterans supported the GOP presidential nominee over Obama, 56 percent to 37 percent. By contrast, non-military respondents favored Obama 50 percent to 43 percent.

Yet, despite McCain’s support among veterans, he cannot take their backing for granted. One reason is Obama’s strong legislative record of supporting veterans now. The other is McCain’s checkered legislative record on vet issues.

The challenge for Obama is whether he can convince millions of veterans who historically vote for the Republican presidential nominee that he has their back covered far more than the former Navy POW.

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