Sen. James Webb, a tough, Vietnam War Marine who was the most decorated of his Naval Academy class (Navy Cross, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts) and served as Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, reassures Obama skeptics who think he is weak on defense. Webb, D-Va., also would balance a McCain ticket with his strong views on the unacceptable face of predatory capitalism and the urgent need for social reform. Sen. Chuck Hagel, also a Vietnam combat veteran with two Purple Hearts, brings heft to Obama with his new book, "America: Our Next Chapter: Tough Questions, Straight Answers," on how to balance a strong America at home and abroad.
Hagel, R-Neb., who is not running for a third term, would also serve equally well for either presidential candidate as defense secretary or secretary of state. Webb abandoned the GOP over his opposition to the invasion of Iraq and, as a Democrat, became the war's boldest critic, unseating Virginia's popular Republican senator George Allen (and garnering 85 percent of the black vote).
Together, Webb and Hagel, the Republicans' toughest anti-Iraq War censurer, co-sponsored a bill patterned on World War II's GI bill for members of the armed forces who have served at least three years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Webb-Hagel GI Bill modernizes education benefits by funding the full cost of tuition at public universities in each state. It would also pay $1,000 a year for fees and books and provide a housing stipend. Negotiated largely by Webb and Hagel with veterans groups and close colleagues outside Congress' committee system, it adds up to $51.8 billion over 10 years. The Congressional Budget Office figures the bill more than doubles the value of its preceding education benefit to $90,000 per veteran. The flip side is that a free college education will encourage experienced veterans to skip re-enlistment.
Hagel is a close friend of John McCain and an admirer of Obama. Hagel and Webb have written recent books that agree on the need to tackle America's social inequities. Webb decries the growing gap between the mega-rich and the wealthy on the one hand, and on the other, the ever widening chasm between the wealthy and the rest of the country.
At the end of World War II, Webb points out in his eighth book, "A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America," CEOs of major corporations made 10 to 20 times more than the worker on the assembly line. Today, the emoluments of Fortune 500 CEOs are 400 to 600 times more than workers make in the same company. More than 1 million families have lost their homes, victims of predatory lenders in the subprime mortgage calamity; another million homes are threatened with foreclosure over coming months.
While worker incomes have been declining, Webb writes, the numbers of "super-rich" in America have quadrupled in 10 years, e.g., among Standard & Poor's Top 500 companies, the average CEO made $15 million in 2006. Forbes estimated CEO pay in the United States was up a collective 38 percent in 2006, to $7.5 billion. Apple's Steve Jobs won first place with $646 million on top of his $1-a-year salary; Occidental Petroleum's Ray Irani placed second with $322 million.
Unregulated hedge fund managers are one atmospheric layer higher. The Top 25 took home $14 billion, one of them $1.7 billion, or, as Webb points out, more than it would cost to provide healthcare for a year to 8 million children -- "the number of children in America, unlike children in any other advanced country, who don't have healthcare."
Webb's cri de coeur is bundled in a chapter titled "From a square meal to a raw deal." Hagel also makes the case for a nation that has slipped its moorings -- and then lost its bearings, with long neglected infrastructure worthy of some Third World nations.
"The cost of fixing and maintaining our nation's infrastructure," Hagel writes, "will require hundreds of billions of dollars to maintain, let alone improve." A power grid that "redlines every summer during peak demand; major municipal water and sewer systems that average over a hundred years in age; hundreds of thousands of bridges, most of them built over fifty years ago; 48,876 miles of interstate highways and hundreds of thousands of miles of roadways bearing heavier traffic loads and less maintenance ... is a cost beyond the financial reach of government alone with all the other obligations we have, especially the trillions (not billions) of dollars in unfunded liabilities for our entitlement programs and the giant price tag on our Iraq war effort."
So where will all the money come from? After two years of study offstage, assisted by scores of experts, Hagel and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., proposed the National Infrastructure Bank Act, "where U.S. government bonds would attract private sector funds to take on projects in excess of $75 million." This, in turn, is designed to put private capital in the service of the most pressing infrastructure needs, as well as "create hundreds of thousands of new jobs that would pump money into the economy and tax revenue back to the treasury so that a large proportion of the infrastructure bonds could be retired through the growth stimulated by the proposed Infrastructure Bank."
The Hagel-Dodd proposal for the first phase of this public-private venture was $60 billion in tax credit bonds. The eventual cost of infrastructure and modernization in America over the next 20 years: more than $1 trillion.
The America that he grew up in, says Hagel, was a society "that had hit upon a golden formula much sought after by the rest of the world: hard work plus creative thinking plus risk/reward incentive plus free-market opportunities (plus some good luck) equals success."