Did someone leak the results of the Pew study to the press yesterday? Suddenly both the New York Times and the Washington Post have taken a more critical look at Barack Obama. The WaPo’s editors scold Obama for his political posturing on the Jim Webb version of the GI Bill that passed this week, calling it the GI Twist:

“THERE ARE many issues that lend themselves to partisan posturing, but giving our veterans the chance to go to college should not be one of them.” So pronounced the Democrats’ likely presidential nominee, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, on the floor of the Senate last week. This was a lovely sentiment, marred only by the fact that it came seconds after Mr. Obama’s own partisan posturing. Mr. Obama duly hailed his Republican opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, as a war hero, then launched a one-two punch, linking Mr. McCain to an unpopular president and painting him as stingy toward those who served their country.

Referring to Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama said, “I cannot understand why he would line up behind the president in his opposition to this GI Bill [or] why he believes it is too generous to our veterans.” … That does not mean that the measure is perfect or that the concerns expressed by the Pentagon and other critics, including Mr. McCain, should be brushed off as illegitimate or insensitive to veterans.

 

Unfortunately, McCain’s response distracted from the real issues in the debate, as the Post’s editors rightly note. His lengthy statement actually addressed those issues, but the inclusion of a shot at Obama’s lack of military service became the money quote, and the actual salient points got lost.

The question for the competing bills has nothing to do with “generosity”, but effectiveness and support for the mission. McCain favored a graduated approach to the GI Bill, giving more credit to those who serve longer in active duty. Webb’s bill provides a flat benefit that doesn’t reward longer service, and costs more in the long run. During a period in which the nation needs experienced soldiers to defend the nation in an asymmetrical war, it doesn’t make much sense for Congress to skew the incentives away from re-enlistment. After all, the primary purpose of a military is national defense and protection of American assets, not college scholarship distribution.

The Post acknowledges the legitimacy of that concern even while endorsing the Webb plan. Principled arguments can be made for both sides of this issue, but Obama chose to smear McCain instead — and McCain chose to answer in kind, at least in part. If Obama can’t address McCain’s legitimate concerns on the impact of the bill on current missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terror in general, then perhaps he should withhold his criticisms until he learns something about the issue.