At a town hall meeting in Denver in early July, a Vietnam veteran asked presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) why he had opposed increasing healthcare for veterans whenever Congress had taken up the issue over the past six years. McCain virtually ignored the man’s question, dissembling his opposition to an updated GI Bill for veterans. After the questioner challenged McCain’s response, the senator reacted as he usually does when queried beyond his comfort level: He got visibly angry.
Because McCain is running for president almost solely on his biography as a war hero, he can’t – and won’t – allow the slightest doubt to linger about his dedication to soldiers both past and present. It didn’t matter that the vet simply wanted to know how McCain – himself a former soldier and prisoner of war – could oppose important healthcare legislation for veterans. In fact, he didn’t even ask McCain about the GI Bill that he opposed, which had been supported by a bipartisan group of 75 senators, including Republican veterans Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and John Warner (Va.).
Most notably, McCain also testily responded to his inquisitor that he had “received every award from every vets organization.”
The problem is, not only is that assertion not true, but McCain’s record on veterans’ issues paints a picture of a man who has been willfully negligent when it comes to providing for his former brothers and sisters in arms.
As Iraq War veteran and former Democratic congressional candidate Paul Hackett says, “Here is a guy who touts himself as a friend of veterans, but his history shows just the opposite. How can someone who cares about our men and women in the armed services vote against the GI Bill or veterans’ healthcare?”
Dying on the vine
In 2005, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), now chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, introduced legislation that would have increased veterans’ medical care by $2.8 billion in 2006. He also introduced another bill that would have set aside $10 million for “readjustment counseling services” – a program to provide a wide range of counseling, outreach and referral services for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, to ease their readjustment back into society. (This program was started in 1979 for Vietnam veterans, so one would think McCain is quite familiar with it.)
But McCain – and other Republicans who are more concerned with using government funds for tax cuts for multimillionaires or for corporate subsidies to oil and gas companies – voted this effort down.
The following year, Akaka requested $1.5 billion for veterans’ medical care and an additional $430 million for the Department of Veteran Affairs for outpatient care and treatment for veterans. But, once again, McCain voted against these proposals, while offering no measures of his own, and without pushing his party to help U.S. veterans.
In 2005, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) saw their respective veteran amendments killed. These amendments would have funded additional medical care and readjustment counseling for Iraq veterans with mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse disorder. McCain voted “no” on both.
In 2005, and again in 2006, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) proposed legislation that would have indexed veterans’ healthcare benefits to take into account the annual changes in inflation and veterans’ population. She proposed paying for the indexing by restoring the pre-2001 top tax rate for income more than $1 million, closing corporate tax loopholes and delaying tax cuts for the wealthy. One guess as to how McCain voted.
In early 2006, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) proposed an amendment for additional funding to shore up the collapsing infrastructures at veterans’ hospitals around the country. The bill would have mandated a minor rollback in the capital gains tax cuts that the Bush administration has given to the richest one-fifth of 1 percent of Americans. McCain, presumably more concerned about the 100-plus lobbyists associated with his campaign than the health of veterans, opposed this amendment.
Not long after, in February 2007, the Washington Post exposed horror stories about the crumbling infrastructure at Washington, D.C.’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
In February 2006, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) sponsored an amendment that would have rolled back capital gains tax cuts so that much-needed equipment for troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan could be purchased. McCain and the Republican leadership made sure those tax cuts stayed in place, and, as a result, the troops didn’t get what they needed.
Finally, in June 2006, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) authored a bill – S. Amdt. 4442 – “to require the redeployment of United States Armed Forces from Iraq in order to further a political solution in Iraq, encourage the people of Iraq to provide for their own security, and achieve victory in the war on terror.”
It received 13 votes. Needless to say, McCain’s wasn’t one of them.
McCain was also noticeably absent on two measures that members of both parties should be able to embrace.
The Homes for Heroes Act – which Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) introduced in April 2007 – would have helped provide housing for low-income veterans and helped tackle the problem of homelessness among America’s military veterans. The bill died, though the House overwhelmingly passed a similar bill in July; its companion version still awaits a new vote in the Senate.
The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2007 – introduced by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) – restores the old GI Bill and provides returning troops with the more robust educational benefits enjoyed by the men and women who served in the three decades following World War II. Although this bill did not initially make it to vote, it was incorporated into the new GI bill that the Senate – absent McCain, who was at a fundraiser in Caliornia – passed in May.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the country’s largest Iraq veterans’ group, looked at 155 Senate votes since Sept. 11, 2001, on legislation that “affected troops, veterans or military families.” It then awarded each senator a grade by comparing his or her votes to IAVA’s view of what constitutes effective support for active troops, veterans and their families.
No senator received an “A” grade. Thirteen senators – all Democrats – received an “A-.” The worst grade received by a Senate Democrat was higher than the best grade granted to a Republican. Obama, for his part, got a B+.
McCain received a “D.”
In fact, IAVA founder and Executive Director Paul Rieckhoff says that “there has been no bigger obstacle to passage of the GI Bill than Senator McCain. Even though he’d now like to claim credit for it, he didn’t even show up. He thought it was more important to be in California for a fundraiser.”
In 2007, the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), after surveying McCain’s votes on healthcare issues for its 1.3 million members, gave him only 20 percent. By contrast, DAV gave 194 Democrats and 7 Republicans a perfect 100 percent. Even by GOP standards, McCain’s performance suffers.
Often times, his is a faithful vote for party above principle. This party-line voting pattern suggests that McCain is a legislative follower – if he bothers to show up at all.
In a 2006 Washington Post column by David Ignatius, McCain described his loyalty to Bush as being so profound that he said he wouldn’t rule out giving up his Senate seat to become secretary of defense if Donald Rumsfeld were to leave.
“I would have to assess where I can be most effective,” said McCain. “It’s awfully hard to say no to the president of the United States.”
McCain’s record makes that abundantly clear.
[Editor’s note: This article is adapted from The Real McCain: Why Conservatives Don’t Trust Him and Why Independents Shouldn’t (PoliPoint Press).]