Troop-Supporting 101

John McCain has some electoral vulnerabilities, but troop-supporting usually is not one of them. It’s a little baffling, then, that he hasn’t signed on to Sen. Jim Webb’s G.I. bill to increase educational benefits for servicemen and veterans. Republicans John Warner and Chuck Hagel are on board. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have signed on, too. And today Obama attacked McCain in West Virginia for failing to support it. Why would McCain open himself up to charges that he doesn’t care about putting troops through school?

McCain says the problem is “incentives.” He complains that Webb’s bill gives the same benefits to servicemen whether they serve three years or 20 years, with no added benefits for those who serve longer. Instead, he has proposed legislation that would raise benefits over a longer period of time.

That would be a valid excuse, if McCain’s bill provided as much as Webb’s bill did from the start. After all, there’s nothing wrong with giving more to people who serve longer. Incentives to stick around are only a problem if they come at the expense of soldiers who don’t make military service their career.

But, looking at the numbers, McCain’s bill appears to pay a lot less from the get-go. It gives active-duty members education benefits of $1,500 a month, which shakes out to $13,500 for a nine-month school year. That’s better than the current G.I. bill, which provides only $6,000 a year. But Webb’s version goes further, providing the maximum tuition at your state’s public university system—roughly $14,000 in many states—plus $1,000 a month to cover living costs. All of that totals more than $20,000.

But wait! McCain’s bill raises benefits down the road, right? Yes, but that’s only if you stick around for 12 years of service . And even then, benefits only get raised up to $2,000 a month, or $18,000 over nine months. That’s less than Webb’s bill gives to troops who have served three years.

There are other points of contention. For one thing, Webb’s bill isn’t cheap—estimates put its price tag anywhere from $2.5 billion to $4 billion a year. But that’s not McCain’s complaint. (You can’t really complain about supporting troops too much .) He’s concerned it will make soldiers leave the military before they otherwise would. He might have a point if his bill provided as much as Webb’s for starting servicemen. But that’s not the case.

It’s easy to see how this stance could become a general-election liability. McCain’s background makes him nearly untouchable on military issues, but refusing to give troops benefits could become a gap in the armor. You can see the attack ads now: John McCain says he’s willing to stay in Iraq for 100 years. So why doesn’t he want our soldiers to go to school?? That may be unfair, but the core point stands: If McCain is going to tether himself to the war, he should be willing to pay for it.