The Republican Party is usually perceived as stronger than Democrats on military matters. Despite the disastrous war in Iraq, American voters who worry most about defense issues continue to trust Republicans. Veterans gave Republicans a 20% edge in 2012 and 2014 voting.
Republican politicians consistently advocate higher defense spending. In this campaign, every Republican presidential candidate has supported increased military spending. Marco Rubio said in November he planned to increase defense spending by $1 trillion over 10 years. Ted Cruz advocated increasing defense spending by about 20%. Jeb Bush said, “We need to increase defense spending significantly”. Donald Trump was both more aggressive and less precise. He famously said in September 2015: “We’re going to make our military so big, so strong and so great, so powerful that we’re never going to have to use it.” In March, he told Sean Hannity that he would increase defense spending, but not by how much.
Republican voters want to hear such promises. In February, 66% of Republicans and 20% of Democrats said that the US spends too little on the military. A major difference between Democratic and Republican voters lies in their support of using overwhelming military force against the threat of terrorism. A poll in December 2015 found 72% of Republicans but only 27% of Democrats said “using military force is the best way to defeat terrorism”.
Republican lawmakers’ interest in buying expensive armaments, however, has not been combined with a willingness to support veterans when they return from combat. For Republican politicians, veterans’ benefits appear to fall into a different category, discretionary domestic spending, where they are more interested in cutting to the bone.
Republicans have a long history of opposing spending measures to help veterans once they return home. The Reagan administration consistently opposed compensating veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. In 1990 Senate Republicans killed a provision about Agent Orange in an omnibus veterans' health package.
In 2010, Senate Republicans opposed the Homeless Women Veterans and Homeless Veterans With Children Act, which would have increased funding for these two groups of veterans. In 2012, Senate Republicans again blocked legislation that would have helped veterans by creating a Veterans Job Corps, saying it cost too much. Mitch McConnell was open about the real reason: “We Republicans remain resolute in our commitment to deny the Democrats anything that looks like an accomplishment in an election year.”
In 2014, conservative lobbying groups, like the Heritage Foundation and the Concerned Veterans for America, a Koch-brothers funded group, argued against the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014 that would have expanded medical, educational and other benefits for veterans. Although veterans’ groups overwhelmingly supported this bill, conservatives argued it would increase the number of veterans eligible for services and cost too much money. Nearly all Republican Senators voted against this bill.
Republicans use military issues as partisan hammers to beat Democrats. A recent example is the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014, which would give the VA Secretary more power to fire poorly performing employees. The bill is useful as a dig at the Obama administration, but did nothing to help veterans.
In 2015, Senate Republicans proposed a Veterans Affairs appropriations bill in 2015 that dramatically cut President Obama’s requested funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs by over $1.2 billion. The national commander of the American Legion complained about these cuts in a letter to Mitch McConnell.
These are just a few examples among many more individual pieces of legislation targeted at improving veterans’ lives which were stopped by Republicans who claimed they cost too much. This year’s Republican presidential candidates proposed aggressive military strikes against our enemies and big increases in defense spending. Their Congressional colleagues consistently reject much less expensive plans to help veterans at home.
As long as they get the votes of Americans who care most about defense, they’ll probably keep calling that patriotism.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 10, 2016