Dean's folly, continued

Posted: Dec 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Howard Dean and the boys might have just lost one of their favorite anti-Bush lines on the stump -- "He can't even find Saddam Hussein" -- but not to worry. Dean still has another biting criticism of Bush national-security policy echoed by other Democratic candidates as well -- that President Bush has supposedly slashed veterans off of their benefits and cut combat pay. As it happens, these charges have as much merit as the can't-find-Saddam taunt in the wake of the dictator getting pulled from a hole.

Dean has said of Bush routinely on the campaign trail: "One night, Friday night -- he hoped the media wouldn't notice -- he announced that combat pay was being cut because 'mission accomplished.' One day last January he went to a Veterans Administration hospital and said that veterans deserve the best pay, the best health care that money could buy. That was the day after he cut 164,000 veterans off their health-care benefits. This president doesn't get that the defense of the United States depends on the men and women he sent to Iraq and depends on the veterans who came home."

In today's free-spending Washington, the charge that anyone is being cut off from anything or that any spending is being reduced has, shall we say, an inherent implausibility. Indeed, no one is being cut off from their veterans benefits.

Here's the background: For 80 years, the rule was that the VA would take care of veterans with medical problems related to their military service or veterans without the means to purchase their own health care. In the mid-1990s, Congress decided to open the VA health care to all veterans, prompting a flood of new entrants into the system. Today, the VA treats a million more patients than it did three years ago, for a total of about 5 million. This sure doesn't sound like cutting veterans off benefits, but maybe they reckon such things differently in Vermont.

Dean's charge does have a wisp of a connection to reality. Because the VA system was overwhelmed by a flood of new patients -- many of them relatively well-off -- it established a new rule saying that veterans with no medical problems relating to their service and an income above a certain threshold are not eligible for VA care. The rule affects an estimated 164,000 people. These are Dean's 164,000 veterans "cut off" from benefits. But they can't be cut off from benefits, because they never received them. The VA grandfathered in everyone already receiving care to make sure no one would be cut off.

The idea that the Bush administration is somehow stingy with the VA is simply absurd. The VA budget has increased by about a third, going from $48 billion a year to $64 billion a year. This year, the VA will provide educational assistance to more than 400,000 people, and guarantee home loans of another 300,000 people, with the total value of about $40 billion. If Dean thinks this is ungenerous, what would be his alternative -- giving veterans lifetime everything-for-free cards?

Dean's combat-pay charge is just as deceptive. The Pentagon earlier this year opposed extending recent Bush-instituted increases in "imminent-danger pay" and "family-separation allowances." It wanted to maintain the current pay of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but through different means. This was all rendered moot when Bush signed into law in November a bill preserving the imminent-danger and family-separation pay increases. So no cut in combat pay had been proposed or took place, but Dean goes his merry way, charging otherwise.

There's a lesson here about the recklessness of Dean and the other Democratic candidates who ape his anti-Bush rhetoric. But that these charges are presented by Dean as a telling critique of Bush national-security policy also demonstrates a certain lack of seriousness about foreign policy. Dean seems to imply that we are going to wage the war on terror with really, really generous veterans health-care benefits. Yeah, right -- and we can't find Saddam Hussein.