Members of the GOP Elite (GOP-E) are again counting down the expected implosion of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. Initially, it was thought the billionaire's run for the White House would end following his remarks about illegal immigrants. Instead, Trump's stand against illegals energized his bid, particularly when a Mexican national--arrested, jailed and deported numerous times--killed a young woman on a fishing pier in San Francisco. Suddenly, The Donald was at (or near) the top of the GOP field, running neck-and-neck with Jeb Bush and Scott Walker.
That's why Trump's opponents--and their backers in the GOP-E--viewed his remarks about Senator John McCain with a mixture of relief and even glee. Mr. Trump's observations that McCain was a hero "only because he got shot down" (and spent 5 1/2 years as a POW in North Vietnam) were particularly vile and loathsome.
By all accounts, Mr. McCain (then a Naval aviator) conducted himself with honor and valor while being held in Hanoi. Claims that McCain somehow collaborated with the enemy have been disproved by journalists and former POWs. The late Bud Day, a retired Air Force Colonel who was McCain's cellmate at the Hanoi Hilton, called those accusations "the biggest f---ing lie I've ever heard." Colonel Day, for those unfamiliar with his story, received the Medal of Honor for his actions as a POW. His eyewitness account of McCain's conduct in North Vietnam should be enough to silence any claims of collaboration, and buttress the Senator's record of heroism under the most difficult circumstances.
Making matters worse, Trump's swipe at McCain is a slur against the hundreds of brave pilots, navigators and aircrew members who went down over North Vietnam. Is Mr. Trump suggesting that men like Jim Stockdale, Jeremiah Denton, Robbie Risner (and countless others) were less skilled aviators because their jet was hit by AAA fire or a surface-to-air missile?
It's worth remembering that North Vietnam assembled one of the world's most sophisticated air defense networks during the 1960s. That weaponry, coupled with our own restrictive ROE (and decreased emphasis on air combat training) led to higher loss rates, and some of our best pilots were among those that wound up in the Hanoi Hilton. Many of the senior officers who organized and led the POWs in North Vietnam have since passed on, but there are plenty of survivors who will gladly challenge Trump's preference for "heroes who don't get shot down."
However, that is not to say John McCain isn't a fair target. Indeed, it is easy to separate the courageous man who kept the faith in a North Vietnamese prison cell and the career politician who has become a creature of Washington, D.C. Senator McCain often touts his work for the military and veterans, as ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and since January of this year, as chairman of that panel. But it's also worth noting that Mr. McCain's recent tenure on the SASC has coincided with the systematic gutting of our military, through Obama-mandated cuts and the sequestration process.
Less than two weeks ago, the Army announced plans to trim another 40,000 soldiers from the ranks and if sequestration remains the law of the land, that total will rise to 70,000. Where's the alternative force structure and funding plan from Senator McCain and his Republican colleagues? If Donald Trump wants to go after John McCain on military-related issues, the current down-sizing provides a tailor-made issue.
So does Mr. McCain's support for the "new" armed forces retirement plan, which cuts the basic pension by 10% and forces service members to begin contributing towards their retirement. The savings promised by this scheme are illusory, at best, and it places a significant financial burden on younger service members, who would make mandatory contributions to their 401K-type plan. As a spokesman for a military family lobbying group observed, the required contribution (pegged at 5%) may force some junior enlisted personnel to choose "between their retirement plan and paying bills." John McCain has voiced support for the plan (along with most Republican Senators), giving Mr. Trump another ready-made issue.
And for good measure, the real estate magnate can critique McCain's support for our "good war" in Libya and the on-going adventure in Syria. Senator McCain led the charge for military support to topple Qadhaffi, with little regard for what might follow. Likewise, he was at the forefront of efforts to arm and train Syrian rebels, a move that has done little to push Bashir al-Asad from power, and has (arguably) strengthened ISIS in the process.
Clearly, there are plenty of reasons to go after McCain (and other members of the GOP establishment) for defense policies that have hollowed our armed forces, and national security strategies that have backfired and contributed to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. If Mr. Trump is as smart as he claims, he would focus future arguments along those lines, and worry less about John McCain's standing in his graduating class at Annapolis.
Trump is also ignoring another issue that should make Democrats--and the GOP-e--squirm. Lest we forget, the Phoenix VA Medical Center was Ground Zero for the scandal that engulfed the agency last year. In Phoenix, we learned about duplicate waiting lists, and vets who literally died while waiting for treatment. Complaints about the local VA began years earlier, including allegations that whistle-blowers were being silenced. Where was McCain?
All legitimate topics, and all ready for the picking by Mr. Trump--if he can learn to make his attacks more about issues and less about personalities. And one more thing: predictions of his pending demise may be premature, at best. Plenty of conservative activists have long separated John McCain the War Hero from Senator McCain the Creature of the Beltway, and are less inclined to jump to his defense. Secondly, there are many younger voters, including those in early primary states, who came of age well after Vietnam. For many of them, attacks on John McCain's military record have little meaning, largely because the war is nothing more than a chapter in a history book.
Keep an eye on the polls over the next week or so. We shall soon see how much damage Mr. Trump inflicted upon himself with those feckless comments about John McCain and his service in Vietnam. For a variety of reasons, the damage may be less severe than some might think.