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Fetishizing the uniform

In yet another manifestation of the "maverick's" fealty to a failed president, John McCain is stuck trying to explain why he and Bush remain united in their opposition to a new, bipartisan G.I. Bill that would

In yet another manifestation of the "maverick's" fealty to a failed president, John McCain is stuck trying to explain why he and Bush remain united in their opposition to a new, bipartisan G.I. Bill that would benefit our returning troops.

McCain felt compelled to defend himself again yesterday, during his Memorial Day speech, and no wonder. This is quite the political dilemma. By standing with President Bush, he risks being perceived as standing against the soldiers - which is not exactly the ideal profile for a Republican candidate.

In his speech yesterday, he at least tried to argue his case on the merits - as opposed to what he did late last week, when he launched a demagogic attack on Barack Obama that bears closer scrutiny. And I will provide that scrutiny, in a moment. But first, a little background:

During the runup to the holiday weekend, some of you might have missed the news about the collapse of Bush's congressional support, the exodus of 10 Senate Republicans on a key military issue. This is a milestone of sorts, although it's fair to wonder why it took so long to happen.

On Thursday, the Senate passed - by a veto-proof margin of 75 to 22 - a new G. I. Bill that would essentially offer full tuition at in-state public universities to returning soldiers who have served at least three years since 9/11. The chief sponsors, Democrat Jim Webb and Republican Chuck Hagel, are military vets. Of the 10 Senate Republicans who supported the measure, at least two (Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and Roger Wicker of Mississippi) are facing tough re-election campaigns and did not want to be perceived as not supporting the troops.

The House has already passed its own version of this bill, by a similarly veto-proof margin. And the concept is strongly supported by both the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Yet Bush is threatening to veto it anyway. And the "maverick" stands with him.

Bush and McCain say that the benefits are too generous, that the lure of better college benefits would dissaude many soldiers from re-enlisting. (Of course, if Bush and McCain were not such strong advocates for an endless war that is needlessly killing soldiers, perhaps there would be no need to worry about the re-enlistment rate. But that's another story.)

The Congressional Budget Office partially rebuts their concern by concluding, in a report, that the promise of enhanced GI Bill benefits would actually draw new people into the military, boosting boost overall recruitment by as much as 16 percent. But McCain remains concerned - as he said in his speech yesterday - that lower re-enlistment rates would result in a decline in the number of non-commissioned officers. Those people are drawn from the ranks of those who sign up for new tours, and, as McCain argued yesterday, "they are very hard to replace. Encouraging people to choose to not become non-commissioned officers would hurt the militaryt and our country very badly."

As I noted earlier, at least McCain sought yesterday to argue on substance. This is a big improvement over his behavior last Thursday, when he went nuclear in the wake of being criticized by Obama. The near-presumptive Democratic nominee had merely observed that McCain was standing with Bush and that he couldn't understand why McCain considered the bipartisan G.I. Bill to be too generous to our veterans.

To which McCain exploded: "I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lecture on my regard for those who did." (Italics mine.)

In rebuttal, let's give the "maverick" a little history lecture:

Woodrow Wilson, one of the great war leaders of the last century, never served our country in uniform. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, last I checked, did a pretty fair job during World War II, never served our country in uniform. Neither did Martin Van Buren or Grover Cleveland or Warren G. Harding or Calvin Coolidge or Herbert Hoover or William Howard Taft or Bill Clinton. As for McCain's political hero, Ronald Reagan, he had an Army ranking - but he fought World War II on the Hollywood backlot.

And, by a different measure: virtually none of the neoconservatives who plotted and launched the Iraq war served our country in uniform. Yet McCain still supports their handiwork.

Putting aside the ahistorical underpinnings of McCain's demagoguery, here's the real problem: He seems to think that his status as a vet should immunize him from political criticism, and that Obama's failure to join the volunteer army should automatically invalidate whatever Obama might want to say about the military.

This is a dangerous argument, particularly since, in this country, civilian presidents are supposed to have the final say over military matters, and there has never been a requirement that those civilians first serve in uniform. If that was mandatory, then the non-serving John Adams would never have gotten his HBO series...and the non-serving Thomas Jefferson would never have been enshrined in his own memorial in Washington, D.C.

McCain helps his cause by what he did yesterday, trying to argue the G.I. Bill issue on the merits. Fetishizing the uniform, using it to protect himself from political criticism, only hurts him.