Military Update: Democrats try warming up to veterans
Democrats are love-bombing America’s 26.5 million military veterans.
Mass. Sen. John Kerry, the party’s leading presidential candidate, begins his victory speeches on primary nights by thanking veterans.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Calif., in the Democratic response to President Bush’s State of the Union address in January, pledged that her party would “leave no veteran behind.”
Pelosi and Illinois Rep. Lane Evans, ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Committee, hosted an unusual meeting Feb. 26 with leaders of dozens of veteran service organizations to review legislative goals.
For Democrats, they include immediate “concurrent receipt” of retired pay and disability compensation for all disabled retirees; an end to the two-tier military survivor benefit plan; a $1,000 bonus to members who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan and $10 billion more for VA health care.
Do Democrats truly expect this election year to see a major shift of veterans away from their conservative Republican base?
“We certainly do and with good reason,” Pelosi told Military Update. “Republicans have not been friends to the veterans. For all their talk about national security, they ignore the needs of veterans.”
Democrats plan to pay for their “Salute to Veterans” package by repealing President Bush’s “reckless tax cuts” for the wealthy, Pelosi said. “It’s a question of priorities.”
Steve Strobridge, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, said fueling the Democratic courtship of veterans is a sense of real disappointment with the Bush administration.
“Put it in context,” he said. “There was a great deal of dissatisfaction among veterans with the Clinton administration. During the election, [then-candidate] Bush used the term, ‘Help is on the way,’ and it raised expectations a lot.”
Rather than support long-ignored veteran issues, Strobridge said, the administration opposed them: bills to lift the ban on concurrent receipt, to improve Guard and Reserve health-care coverage, to end the drop in survivor benefits at age 62 and to raise force levels to ease the strain on current forces. Even now it studies ways to trim taxpayer support for commissaries.
Spokespersons for Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, Ill., Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas, and Rep. Duncan Hunter, Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said their bosses were unavailable to respond to Pelosi’s remarks.
But a senior official at the Department of Veterans Affairs, who asked not to be named, said Democratic criticism of administration support for veterans amounts to “playing games with numbers and words.”
VA health care is treating a million more patients than in 2001, he said. The proposed $68 billion VA budget for 2005 is 40 percent higher than when Bush took office. User fees and drug co-payments are appropriate for lower priority veterans who, six years ago, were not even entitled to VA care.
Veteran advocates acknowledge that the Department of Veterans Affairs, led by Anthony Principi, has reduced an enormous backlog of claims and improved access to care for the seriously disabled, the indigent and those with service-connected ailments.
For current forces, the administration also backed annual pay raises and housing allowance increases that helped close a gap in purchasing power.
Democrats are promising a lot more and vet groups are delighted.
“This is the first time in recent memory that anybody has made veterans a campaign issue, or even mentioned them, other than to say, ‘Yes, of course, we support our veterans and a strong national defense,’” said David Autry, spokesman for Disabled American Veterans.
DAV likes Kerry’s call for mandatory full funding of VA health care, “something we’ve been trying to get Congress to do for several years.”
Democrats, he said, “have picked up on the fact that the Republicans have, if not actively acted against veterans, tried to ignore them and, in some minds, have taken the veterans’ votes for granted.”