Flanked by five veterans and standing in front of a Beaver County backdrop bearing the slogan "Solutions for a Strong Military," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday attacked President Bush's handling of the Iraq war and touted her own presidential campaign's agenda to improve veterans services.
In an appearance at Hopewell High School, the New York Democrat advocated mandatory funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, getting rid of the Pentagon's stop-loss program that can unexpectedly extend soldiers' tours, offering a new GI bill to help veterans go to college or start businesses as well as other programs to ease the strain on the military.
With President Bush scheduled to address the nation today about Iraq, Mrs. Clinton called for him to give a definitive answer regarding what the exit strategy is going to be, and to extend to Congress an opportunity to review related pacts or agreements with Baghdad -- a power being accorded only to Iraq's parliament.
During a brief news conference after the event, Mrs. Clinton acknowledged that the Iraq war had recently been receiving second billing to the economy on the presidential campaign trail. She said the high concentration of veterans in Beaver County as well as this week's Capitol Hill testimony by Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the U.S. envoy to Baghdad, had made yesterday's military theme relevant.
Her campaign has been experiencing turmoil related to economic issues with the resignation Sunday of chief strategist Mark Penn. In his role as CEO of the Burson-Marsteller public relations firm, Mr. Penn recently met with Colombia's U.S. ambassador to promote a free-trade pact that Mrs. Clinton opposes. Already unpopular within her campaign, Mr. Penn was pressured to resign from his strategist post after his contact became public. But his firm still will provide polling and advice to her campaign.
Mrs. Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, also supports the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and during his presidency he signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been blamed for job losses in Pennsylvania and other states.
"I have a long record of being of a different attitude toward trade than my husband is," Mrs. Clinton told reporters. "I don't think any married couple I know agrees on everything, and we disagree on this. The Colombia free-trade deal, in my view, is not appropriate because of the history of suppression and targeted killings of labor organizers in Colombia."
Mrs. Clinton did concede that the issue was open to debate, saying, "Very credible people who care deeply about this country and have a commitment to working on the economy have a different view."
She addressed a fairly subdued crowd -- half of which were Hopewell students given an opportunity to miss class. Accompanying her were Rear Adm. David Stone, Brig. Gen. Michael Dunn, Brig. Gen. John M. Watkins Jr., Monroeville Mayor Gregory Erosenko, who is a Vietnam-era Army veteran, and Thomas Giza, a former Army specialist and Iraq veteran from Monroeville -- all of whom are endorsing Mrs. Clinton's candidacy.
Both audience questions before the event's close were about the economy, underscoring that the looming recession appears to be of more concern to voters than the war.
After her appearance, Mrs. Clinton flew to New York, where she was to appear with singer Elton John at a Radio City Music Hall fund-raiser.
Daniel Malloy can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1731. First Published April 10, 2008 4:30 AM