Tonight NBC and IAVA are hosting the first-ever “Commander-in-Chief Forum” in the hangar bay of the USS Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier that’s now a museum docked at Pier 86 in midtown Manhattan. The forum will not be a debate, but rather a hybrid “town hall” event, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump appearing separately in back-to-back 30-minute segments to answer questions posed by NBC personality Matt Lauer. The forum airs tonight at 8 PM EDT. (Check local listings for the NBC/MSNBC station in your area.)
The military community — particularly the active duty community — has a unique stake in the outcome of this election since the Constitution makes the President of the United States the Commander-in-Chief of the nation’s military and give him or her the power to take the nation to war. As a result, servicemembers would be well advised to exercise their right to vote and to be as informed as possible while doing so.
Here’s a quick look at some of the issues that will likely come up during the event:
1. Defense budget
The defense budget is a complex beast, worth over $600 billion in annual spending (as measured by the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act). Wrapped into that are the costs of fighting the wars in Afghanistan and against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the acquisition programs for defense systems (aka “program of record”), manpower funding, and ancillary items like child care and spouse employment. But look for tonight’s discussion to be centered around the issue of “sequestration,” the law passed in 2012 as a deficit reduction measure that wound up targeting the Pentagon more than any other part of the government as a way to yield the desired outcome. The result, which threatens to cut DoD’s budget by nearly 25 percent over the next eight years, has been blamed for harming military readiness in myriad ways, including gutting the number of troops on active duty and creating the need for squadrons to “cannibalize” scrapped airplanes in order to stay airworthy.
Watch for Trump to call for an end to sequestration with the assertion that the necessary deficit reductions can be met by elimination of government waste. For her part, Clinton is likely to avoid committing to ending sequestration, instead focusing on how America needs to be more judicious about when and where troops should be deployed.
2. Vet healthcare
This has been a hot-button topic during the campaign season to date and is sure to dominate a large portion of the discussion tonight. The VA has been plaqued by scandals in recent years — everything from long wait times that resulted in vet patient deaths to claims backlogs in the hundred of thousands — and Secretary Bob McDonald, who was brought in because of his corporate business experience, has been frustrated by the slow pace of change within the agency even as he touts the accomplishments that have occured on his watch.
Solutions for the VA’s woes are incredibly complex and don’t make for good television, so watch for Lauer to admininster the litmus test to the candidates in the form of a question around how each of them feels about privatization, which is basically a plan to outsource many if not all of the functions to private medical entities. (A “Commission on Care” recently released a report that said privatization was a bad idea cost-wise and that vets who tried it hated it because they felt lost in the system.) Trump initially said he supported privatization but has since softened that position, favoring it only “when it makes sense.” Clinton is against privatization.
A possible x-factor on this topic is that Trump recently called VA Secretary McDonald “a political hack.” While Lauer probably won’t directly ask him whether he stands by that, watch for a more-cryptic version of that question.
3. Vet suicides
This topic is a subset of the one above. The latest statistics released by DoD are that 20 veterans a day commit suicide. Last year the Clay Hunt Act was passed by Congress to combat this trend, and it aims to do so in 3 major ways: Improve the quality of mental health care, improve access to quality mental health care, and to increase the number of mental health care providers.
4. Foreign policy (and war against ISIS)
Trump has used the threat of ISIS as a centerpiece of his campaign, claiming that the group’s rise is a function of President Obama’s perceived weakness across the world stage. Clinton, on the other hand, primarily as a function of her recent experience as Secretary of State, tends to be very granular in her answers when asked what the U.S. should do to combat the Islamic State.
This topic as much as any other illustrates the contrast between the candidates. Watch for Trump to avoid details and instead state in general terms how we have to be tougher and how he’ll take care of the problem very quickly and Clinton to get into the weeds, which, in turn, will give Trump fuel for his thesis that, for all of her knowledge, she’s failed to keep America safer during her time in government. Trump has stated that he’s unwilling to topple Syrian president Assad, while Clinton has said she is willing to do that.
The other threat Lauer might introduce is the one posed by China, especially in light of recent saber rattling in the western Pacific and President Obama’s poor treatment, protocol-wise, at the G-8 Summit. Trump has been very aggressive with his anti-China rhetoric on the campaign trail, particularly around trade practices and currency devaluation, so expect him to be similarly oriented tonight.
5. Vet education
This topic will most certainly take the form of a question about how the candidates feel about the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the comprehensive education benefit made into law in 2009 that was expanded to cover spouses and dependents and has proved to be expensive as a result. As lawmakers continue to fight budget battles on the Hill, some have recently made feints toward narrowing the extent of the GI Bill, and those efforts have been met with stiff resistance from IAVA and other veteran service organizations.
If the subject comes up, and it certainly should, watch for both candidates to strongly support the GI Bill.
6. Vet employment
As important as getting vets the education opportunities they deserve is providing them with rewarding jobs in keeping with their experience and talents. Michele Obama and Jill Biden founded “Hire Our Heroes,” an intiative sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that has created awareness if not actual jobs. Clinton has said she supports government programs aimed at assisting veterans, and Trump generally answers questions on the subject with the claim that he will bring jobs back from overseas, which will benefit all Americans, including veterans.
7. Homeland defense/immigration
Immigration isn’t necessarily a veteran topic, except as it deals with the 6,000 Afghan interpreters who worked closely with our troops during the war and now would like to immigrate to the United States with their families because they fear for their safety in their homeland. These Afghans — supported by the veterans who fought alongside them — have faced roadblocks in obtaining visas to enter America.
While this topic most likely won’t come up tonight during the CiC Forum, it would be interesting to see how each candidate responds between now and the election.
Clinton: Benghazi, private email server and classified documents, smashed Blackberrys . . .
Trump: McCain “not a hero,” Purple Heart gaff, Khan (Gold Star) family kerfuffle, Saddam the awesome terrorist fighter . . .
urther CiC Forum prep reading here.
Have your opinion thrown into the mix tonight by taking the #MilitaryVotesMatter poll. #MilitaryVotesMatter is powered by MilitaryOneClick teamed up with We Are The Mighty, Doctrine Man, Got Your Six and a handful of influencers who want to provide a non-partisan confidential opportunity for the military and veteran community to have their voices heard by sharing where they currently stand in the presidential election. The poll is short and straightforward collecting information about which state they will vote in, what branch of service they are affiliated with, their current military status, and the candidate they intend to vote for.