2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes

2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes
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2020 Democrats are making an ambitious play to win over veterans, a group that backed President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE in the last election and remains broadly supportive of his policies.

Democratic presidential contenders have been rolling out plans to tout policies they say will help former service members, including efforts to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), improve veterans’ access to health care, in particular mental health services, provide more jobs and tackle a rise in homelessness.

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Veterans issues have largely taken a backseat during the campaign, with just passing mentions of veterans during the Democratic debates. But centered around Monday’s Veterans Day observances, many leading Democratic presidential candidates shared new plans or touted their earlier proposals.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism stirs up controversy Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (D-Mass.) has released a plan where she vowed to halve the veteran’s suicide rate in four years by investing in mental health care, boosting research into the causes of military suicide and providing annual mental health exams for service members.

Her plan also called for investments in the VA, including filling the nearly 49,000 staffing vacancies and modernizing aging infrastructure.

“All three of my brothers served, so I know the responsibility we have to our service members, military families, and veterans,” Warren wrote on her campaign website. “I will honor our troops not only by executing sound military strategy, but also by caring for our veterans after they take off the uniform.”

On Veterans Day, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenNew York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Graham invites Giuliani to testify about recent Ukraine trip Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications MORE, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Buttigieg rolls out endorsements from South Bend officials Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders 'outraged' after MLB threatens to cut ties with minor league teams Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (I-Vt.) all unveiled their own plans.

Biden pledged to eliminate wait times for veterans expressing suicidal thoughts, invest $300 million more in research on traumatic brain injuries and toxic exposures, and modernize VA facilities.

“President Trump has repeatedly failed our veterans and ignored this sacred obligation,” Biden’s plan said.

“From the outrage of deporting undocumented veterans without checking their record of military service, to allowing his wealthy Mar-a-Lago friends to drive veterans policy, to pursuing policies designed to privatize and dismantle the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Trump neither understands nor respects the idea of ‘duty, honor, country’ that inspires our brave military members to serve and imbues our veterans with pride,” the plan continued.

Buttigieg, an Afghanistan War veteran, promised to streamline access to medical care, increase investments in suicide prevention, address the personnel shortage and expand benefits to veterans with so-called bad paper discharges.

In a Veterans Day interview with The Associated Press, Buttigieg also said he’d nominate a woman to the lead the VA, which would be a first.

“I think leadership plays a huge role so absolutely I’d seek to name a woman to lead VA,” he said.

Sanders, who served as Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman from 2013 -2015, pledged to fill the VA’s vacancies, guarantee comprehensive dental care and expand mental health services.

Sanders co-sponsored the Veterans Choice Act with the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay Budowsky: Would John McCain back impeachment? MORE (R-Ariz.) that responded to the 2014 wait time scandal. But during the 2016 presidential campaign, Sanders came under criticism for not responding swiftly enough to the scandal while he served as chairman of the Veterans committee.

In his 2020 plan, Sanders highlighted his role in pushing the Choice bill, as well as his opposition to the follow-up legislation Congress passed in 2018 called the VA Mission Act, which enacted broader reforms.

Sanders highlighted concerns with the Mission Act, which critics saw as a first step to privatizing the VA.

“The privatization occurring under the Mission Act is leading to a massive budget shortfall in every region of the country,” his plan said. “Instead of coming to Congress to request the funding needed to meet our obligation to provide care to veterans, the Trump administration is simply telling hospitals and medical professionals to do more with less, which will inevitably lead to worse care and more private sector care.”

Other common themes among Democrats’ plans include protecting veterans from deportation, allowing the VA to research medical uses of cannabis and eliminating the disability claims backlog.

The fight for veterans’ votes will be fierce, and it puts advocates for veterans in a difficult spot.

Veterans groups have pressed candidates for more details and vowed to push them to follow through if elected. But they are also largely staying out of what will be a bruising election fight.

“It is good that the candidates are thinking about veterans, but none of the candidates have a robust policy agenda as thorough and comprehensive as IAVA’s policy agenda,” Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), said in a statement to The Hill. 

“Candidates should be adopting all of these reforms into their platforms, not just picking and choosing. And then we need to get to work getting it all implemented.”

Several veterans groups contacted by The Hill for their reaction to 2020 candidates’ plans declined to comment or did not respond. Those that did respond spoke only in general terms.

Veterans groups have taken pains to stress that their issues require bipartisan work.

Trump, though, holds an edge in the fight for veterans’ votes.

Veterans broadly supported Trump in the 2016 election, and Trump has regularly touted his policies on the military, efforts to reform the VA and economic record as benefiting veterans.

Trump has repeatedly held up the Mission Act as a signature achievement at both official White House events and campaign rallies.

“People said it couldn’t be done, VA Choice,” Trump said at a Mississippi rally this month. “Our veterans were waiting in line for days and weeks sometimes.”

Trump frequently incorrectly refers to the Mission Act as Choice, despite the fact that the Choice Act is a different bill passed under the Obama administration.

Trump has in the past courted controversy from veterans. He frequently attacked McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and during the 2016 campaign, attacked a Gold Star family who had denounced him. He also recently admitted in court documents that he gave his campaign control over distributing $2.8 million the Trump Foundation collected at a 2016 event in Iowa billed as a fundraiser for veterans.

Exit polls in 2016 indicated veterans voted for Trump over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNo, the polls aren't wrong — but you have to know what to look for How to shut down fake Republican outrage over 'spying' on Trump More than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls MORE by a 2 to 1 margin. A July survey of veterans from the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent said they approve of how Trump is handling his duties as commander in chief.

Still, Pew found that there’s a sharp partisan divide in Trump’s support from veterans. Among those who identified as Republican or lean Republican, 92 percent said they approve of Trump’s handling of his commander in chief duties. For Democrats or those who lean Democratic, 93 percent disapproved.