In a speech in West Virginia earlier this week, Barack Obama attacked John McCain for opposing Jim Webb's "21st Century G.I. Bill," the original 1946 version of which paid full tuition and living costs for veterans enrolling in college. As this helpful Boston Globe piece explains, the original bill was curtailed during the relative peace of the 1980s, capping benefits at just under $10,000 per year. The new bill, which Webb introduced with Chuck Hagel and Frank Lautenberg and which John Warner has cosponsored, would raise the cap on the benefit to match the cost of the most expensive public university or college in any given state.


Such a measure may seem relatively uncontroversial, but McCain has joined the White House and Pentagon in opposing it because he fears it could lure soldiers out of the armed forces. Says McCain: "[Webb's] bill offers the same benefits whether you stay three years or longer. We want to have a sliding scale to increase retention." McCain has signed onto a counterproposal by Lindsey Graham, which would increase the monthly education benefit and allow career military personnel to transfer their benefits to their children, but is nowhere near as comprehensive as Webb's proposal.


The issue seems a good opportunity for Obama to practice his typical, compassionate politics while shoring up on national defense. Look for it to especially become an issue if he chooses as his running mate Webb, who has accused McCain of being "full of it." The dropouts McCain fears are real--the CBO estimates it will cost the military $1.1 billion over four years to offset them--but Webb has wisely described the bill's passage in moral terms, not economic ones (although economics may favor it too: Estimates suggest the original bill returned between five and 13 dollars on every one invested). The original G.I. Bill was more generous than Webb's proposal, covering even private tuitions. That McCain would defend it as "one of the greatest things about the 20th century" while opposing Webb's measure is a hypocrisy that Obama should seize.


--Ben Crair