The American economy already has suffered so many heart attacks, with more expected, that a presidency by either Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., or Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., will have the best chance since Dwight Eisenhower’s administration — 1953 through 1961 — to cut the bloated national defense budget, now up to about $700 billion a year.
Both have pledged to get the taxpayers more bang for their defense bucks. But campaign statements are always rubbery and full of wiggle room. Still, for the first time in history, we have two presidential candidates who sat side by side in the Senate for the same four years and voted on the issues of the day.
Studying the candidates’ votes affecting the military, including our veterans, along with their meatiest statements on national defense issues, reveals both surprising similarities and differences. CongressDaily focused on their votes in the years 2005, the year Obama was sworn in, 2006 and 2007. This year, either or both candidates were campaigning so often that they missed too many votes to reveal the pillars of their philosophy about providing for the common defense, the responsibility the Founding Fathers entrusted to Congress.
Here are the significant similarities between McCain and Obama as revealed by their votes and statements:
*Nuclear weapons. Both want to do more to avoid nuclear proliferation, though McCain sent chills through some voters by singing “bomb, bomb, bomb” Iran. In May, McCain said: “A quarter of a century ago President Ronald Reagan declared: ‘Our dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.’ That is my dream, too.”
Obama wrote to the Council for a Livable World that, “As president, I will take the lead to work for a world in which the roles and risks of nuclear weapons can be reduced and ultimately eliminated.”
In 2005, both McCain and Obama voted (Senate vote 200) for an amendment by then-Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., to make it easier for foreign nations, particularly those in the former Soviet Union, to get U.S. money to improve safeguards on nuclear weapons.
McCain in 2005 voted (vote 171) against and Obama for an amendment to take money away from the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator and use it to reduce the national debt. But McCain has since changed his mind. In May of this year he said, “I would cancel all further work” on the nuclear penetrator because “it does not make strategic or political sense.”
Similarly, McCain voted (vote 325) in 1999 — before Obama was elected to the Senate — against the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but has pledged to continue the present-day ban on such testing and to take “another look” at the signed but not Senate-ratified treaty.
Obama has pledged to make Senate ratification a priority in his first term.
*Larger Army and Marine Corps. Both McCain and Obama have gone on record as favoring expansion of active duty land forces and starting up some kind of national service program for young people.
An Obama policy paper calls for increasing the Army by 65,000 soldiers; the Marine Corps by 27,000.
But neither candidate has spelled out how he would pay for the gigantic costs of recruiting and paying for their care while they are in uniform and when they become veterans.
“John McCain thinks it is especially important to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps,” states one of his defense policy papers.
In his policy paper, Obama promised to “end the Bush administration’s stop-loss policy,” which has kept thousands of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq longer than the tours they signed up for. Critics charge this amounts to a “back-door draft.”
Dramatic differences between McCain and Obama in the national defense realm include these:
*Right of habeas corpus for terrorism suspects held in Guantanamo Bay prisons and elsewhere. McCain has consistently voted against this and Obama for it. See Senate votes 319 and 324 in 2005 and vote 259 in 2006.
*Veterans care. McCain, if fellow veterans did not consider him a war hero, would be vulnerable to swift boat attacks here while Obama’s voting pattern would be saluted. In 2005, McCain voted against (vote 242) and Obama for shifting $10 million from a Veterans Affairs technology account to help finance veterans’ counseling.
In 2006 McCain voted against (vote 63) and Obama for eliminating some tax breaks for the rich to provide $104 billion for veterans’ health care for five years.
That year, McCain voted for (vote 222) and Obama against killing an amendment to take $2 million from Air Force procurement and spend it on diagnosing and treating brain injuries suffered by combat veterans.
*Missile defense. McCain’s statements document he is all for it, whether Russia likes it or not, while Obama’s statements testify to deep reservations.
America’s financial peril has changed the political environment so much that either candidate should be able to kill, or at least stretch out, overcost super weapons that amount to the Pentagon’s Bridge to Nowhere because they do not combat the here-and-now threats to America.
Even the job-hungry Congress, which has come to regard the Pentagon budget as a public works program, might be too intimidated by the sick economy to roll the new president after he makes cuts in the defense budget.
GEORGE C. WILSON is a veteran defense writer. This column originally appeared in CongressDaily.