THE BLOG
08/30/2014 10:57 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2014

Why Are Democrats Tone Deaf on Military Issues?

Catherine Lane via Getty Images

On Tuesday, President Obama addressed the annual convention of the American Legion and received a collective cold shoulder from a military audience who represent a membership of 2.4 million veterans.

The tepid reception was due in part to the scandal that erupted in May when a whistleblower revealed that as many as 40 veterans died while they remained on a waiting list to receive medical treatment at the Veterans Health Administration facilities in Phoenix, Arizona.

This week, the Obama Administration released an Inspectors General report that stated that, while veterans encountered delays in receiving care and while "concerns" existed about the quality of the care that was given, the IG was "unable to conclusively assert," to quote current VA secretary Robert McDonald, that bad care "caused the death of the veterans" in Phoenix. No doubt, this type of hair-splitting might account for the reception Obama was given by the American Legion.

Then again, in recent years, Democrats have established a track record of being tone deaf when addressing military and veteran issues. Though not a matter of life and death, consider the way some Democrats have dealt with a subject that is important to many active and retired servicemen -- college. The attack is being led by United States Senators Tom Harkin, of Iowa, and Dick Durbin, of Illinois, both Democrats, and the target is familiar to many in defense and military circles, though perhaps not to the public at large -- American Military University.

Founded in 1991 by a former Marine, AMU initially focused on educating military personnel in areas, such as counterterrorism and military intelligence, not offered by traditional universities. In 1998, AMU became an online university, which many active-duty servicemen prefer since they have nontraditional schedules and are often subject to redeployment. Within a decade, AMU became the largest provider of education to the military, reaching a student population of over 100,000, more than half of whom are on active duty.

In 2013, AMU made the annual list compiled by U.S. News and World Report of top online schools, coming in at Number 34. It was included in nationwide roundups published by Princeton Review. "In every branch of the military and across the Defense Department overall," Military Times noted, "American Military University attracted more military tuition assistance students than any other school."

There was only one problem. AMU is a for-profit college, lumping it into the same category as schools like the University of Phoenix and DeVry University. "For-profit higher education has long been a politically divisive issue," The New York Times observed in 2012, "with Democrats generally arguing that greater regulation is needed."

For the last two years, Tom Harkin, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has waged an attack on the post-9/11 GI Bill because, to quote Harkin, "enrollment of veterans in for-profit colleges increased sharply, in tandem with a steep decline in veterans enrollment in public institutions." Indeed, for-profit colleges enrolled 31 percent of all veterans in 2012, compared to 23 percent in 2009, while public colleges saw their percent of veterans plunge from 62 to 50. The reason? Harkin believes veterans are not sophisticated enough to determine which school best fits their needs.

Harkin is not the only one who views veterans as naïve. So does Durbin. According to Military Times, Durbin in a hearing "expressed worries that the name American Military University could mislead service members into thinking that it was affiliated with the military." Durbin seemed unaware he was insulting the very servicemen he claimed to be protecting.

Durbin and Harkin have teamed up to propose a bill that would change the current 90/10 Rule, meaning for-profit colleges cannot receive more than 90 percent of their revenue from federal funds, to 85/15. In addition, colleges would be required to count military tuition assistance and GI Bill benefits as federal student aid.

This would severely hamper AMU's ability to function, which seems to be the goal of Durbin and Harkin as well as Democratic members of the House of Representatives like Steve Cohen of Tennessee, who agrees with his colleagues that "these schools aggressively target veterans and service members." Again -- veterans are naïve.

One odd aspect of this assault is that, several years back, Harkin actually praised AMU. But eliminating for-profit colleges is now so important to him that doing a good job of educating service members and veterans is not sufficient.

Harkin and Durbin have seen their bill stall out in the Senate, but they continue their attack -- as tone deaf as President Obama was before the America Legion and getting the same response from members of the American military.