On veterans education bill, Dole backs Obama over McCain
WASHINGTON – Former U.S. Sen Bob Dole is a leading advocate for war veterans and a longtime Republican ally of presidential candidate John McCain, but on Friday he sided with Democrat Barack Obama to endorse a bill the Arizona senator opposes to raise benefits for former soldiers.
The legislation passed by the Senate on Thursday is at the heart of a fierce spat between McCain and his Obama, the Illinois senator closing in on the Democratic presidential nomination. Obama questioned McCain’s commitment to veterans, while the Republican candidate blasted the Obama’s lack of military service.
“I’m for the concept … I probably would have voted for it, if we get the money,” Dole told the National Press Club in an appearance spiced liberally with his trademark political wit. He acknowledged, “I haven’t read it, which is not a requirement in Congress.”
The bill would increase education benefits for war veterans. Dole likened the current political battle to the one over the narrowly approved post-World War Two G.I. Bill, which generously funded college education and other benefits for soldiers and became wildly popular.
“I’m for it. That’s how I got an education,” said Dole, who was severely wounded in the war.
McCain said the Senate bill would encourage too many soldiers to leave the military after one term.
Dole’s appearance came ahead of the Memorial Day weekend honoring U.S war dead. He gave a progress report on veterans health care, saying it was improving under recommendations of a panel he helped lead following revelations of shabby facilities at the Army’s Walter Reed hospital.
But in a question-and-answer session Dole also offered views on this year’s presidential race, from the perspective of an 84-year-old elder statesman who lost to Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential campaign and to Walter Mondale in the 1976 vice-presidential race.
Dole addressed issues including:
— Republican electoral chances, which he said were hurt by the Iraq war and weak economy: “It’s a tough year for elephants (Republicans).”
— McCain’s rejection of a conservative pastor’s endorsement, after controversies over derogatory statements about Jews and Catholics: He characterized his own decision to reject a donation from a gay-and-lesbian Republican group in the 1996 campaign as “stupid.”
“My view should have been … what Ronald Reagan’s view was. If they agree with my policies and want to support me, that’s fine.”
— McCain’s health report, released on Friday: “If age is an issue, I’ll serve with him.”
Dole would have been 73 had he won in 1996 at age 73. McCain turns 72 in August and would be the oldest person elected to a first term as president.
Photo credit: Reuters/Jim Young (Bob Dole, right, with President George W. Bush and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala at a meeting on veterans’ health care in March 2007)