WASHINGTON -- When candidates talk, it pays to listen. Sure, there are those who believe "you can tell a politician is lying when his/her lips are moving," and that old saw may even be true when they are testifying under oath about their girlfriends or fund raisers at Buddhist temples. But once you sort through all the hype and spin, those running for office really are telling us what they believe and what they intend to do if elected. And when you hear opposing candidates in a common venue, it can be very revealing. That's what happened this week in Milwaukee, Wis., at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) annual convention. It was an audition for the next commander in chief. It was also a missed opportunity.
The "privilege" of speaking first at the convention went to Texas Gov. George W. Bush. The GOP nominee told some 7,000 of my fellow veterans that: "The current administration inherited a military ready for the dangers and challenges facing our nation. The next president will inherit a military in decline." That's true. The Clinton-Gore-Cohen troika has presided over a debilitating 40 percent cut in military spending while undertaking an average of one new overseas deployment every nine weeks. Gov. Bush accurately stated that "even the highest morale is eventually undermined by back-to-back deployments, poor pay, shortages of spare parts and equipment and rapidly declining readiness" and added: "A volunteer military has only two paths. It can lower its standards to fill its ranks or it can inspire the best and brightest to join and stay." He offered a prescription: a $1 billion pay raise; a review of all overseas commitments and a "timely withdrawal" from Bosnia and Kosovo; $310 million for better schools on or near military bases; and $20 billion on research and development for new weapons systems.
A day later, having heard George Bush's comments, Al Gore waded into the same VFW crowd and promised to "ensure that America's military remains the most powerful in the world." He said that he, too, would raise military pay and benefits and that under his plan, "we'll be able to afford it." The vice president crowed that the Clinton-Gore administration "signed a 4.8 percent pay increase -- the largest in 20 years." True enough, but what he didn't say was that the Clinton-Gore White House opposed a military pay raise of that magnitude -- and that his running mate, Joe Lieberman, was one of only eight senators to vote against it.
As expected, Gore reminded the audience of his five-month visit to Vietnam as an Army correspondent, his service on the House Intelligence Committee and that he had "crossed party lines in the Senate" to vote in favor of fighting the Persian Gulf War. He further claimed that the Clinton-Gore administration has increased defense spending (from a low of $262 billion in 1991 to the $288 billion defense spending bill for 2001 that William the Impeached signed into law two weeks ago). Mr. Gore apparently forgot that this bill was the result of Republicans in Congress insisting on more than the administration wanted for defense.
That's where both candidates for commander in chief left the crucial issue of national defense. Al Gore went back to bashing American businesses, courting union votes and telling us not to drink the water or breathe the air. George Bush left Milwaukee to talk about his education proposals, why his tax cuts are a good idea and how he will repair Social Security. Voters are left to wonder if filling the role of commander in chief is simply a matter of deciding how best to spend their tax dollars at the Pentagon.
The VFW could have done a great service to the nation by asking both candidates a question similar to the one Bill Clinton posed at the Democrat's convention: "Is America as well-defended today as it was eight years ago?"
That question might have prompted Al Gore to explain why military recruiting, retention and readiness are at a 50-year low; why more than 15,000 U.S. servicemen are deployed around the world at the beck and call of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (and nearly 800 wearing UN uniforms); why he once said that Americans killed in Iraq had "died in the service of the United Nations"; why we have so many ships that cannot go to sea, aircraft that cannot fly and tanks that cannot shoot; why Clinton-Gore administration officials call Marines "extremists"; why we have "sensitivity training" in our recruit training centers and whether we really need a homosexual tolerance "litmus test" for appointments to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as he once suggested.
Such a question would have given Bush the chance to respond that, as commander in chief, he won't treat our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines like lab rats in a radical social-engineering experiment; that he will not permit our armed forces to serve under foreign officers, and that the credibility of the United Nations isn't worth one drop of American blood. Now that's a message Americans would like to hear!