Facing fierce criticism from her Republican opponent on her record on military issues, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer made yet another visit Friday to a facility with military ties — meeting with officials of a USC program who are training mental healthcare providers to work with veterans and active duty personnel.
Noting that she had helped secure $3.2 million for the program last year, Boxer vowed to fight for increased funding this year and to keep her colleagues in Washington focused on the mental health issues faced by servicemen and women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We can never, ever, ever adequately repay those who have stepped forward and put their lives on the line in service to our country,” Boxer said Friday, “but what we can do, and what we must do, and what I will always do as long as I have a breath and the power to do it, is to ensure that they have the finest quality of care for injuries that are both seen and unseen.”
Though she has been juggling full-time duties in Washington in the midst of her competitive race with Carly Fiorina, the USC event was at least Boxer’s ninth visit since June to a facility that specializes in veterans’ care, support for military families or defense contracts, a series touched off with a high-profile trip to Camp Pendleton with First Lady Michelle Obama shortly after the California primary.
Fiorina has sought to frame her opponent as an unreliable partner for the military, and the Republican candidate’s spokeswoman, Julie Soderlund, called the timing “suspicious.” “Barbara Boxer has clearly made a concerted effort in an election year to try to create the false impression that she supports our troops,” she said.
Boxer’s aides respond to that charge by saying that the three-term senator has been “a leading voice” on improving treatment of burns, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress and other injuries. But Boxer’s attempts to publicize that part of her portfolio — and perhaps to blunt some of Fiorina’s criticisms on defense spending — have been undeniable.
During the first two weeks of the August congressional recess, Boxer visited a veterans hospital in Palo Alto to tout a new mental health unit, held a public event with Japanese American World War II veterans, spoke at the delivery ceremony of the 201st C-17 cargo plane and attended a groundbreaking at a child-care center at Vandenberg Air Force Base where she announced her participation in a new Senate caucus focusing on military families.
In her first ad of the general election campaign, which aired this week, some of the opening shots were of wounded veterans, images intended to highlight her work securing funding for a combat casualty care center in San Diego.
That emphasis stands in contrast with some of her past races. Boxer began her political career as an anti-war activist and endeared herself to core Democratic voters with her advocacy against the first Gulf War and her vote against the invasion of Iraq, which she has described as her “proudest moment.” In her 1992 campaign, a year when she advocated chopping defense spending in half, her television ads highlighted how she had exposed pricey purchases by the Pentagon in the mid-1980s that included $7,622 coffee pots.
Fiorina said earlier this week that Boxer’s efforts to portray herself as a friend of the military were “an insult.” Fiorina’s campaign has devoted part of its anti-Boxer website to the senator’s now-infamous exchange during a 2009 congressional hearing with Brigadier Gen. Michael Walsh, in which Boxer asked him to call her “senator” rather than “ma’am.” And Fiorina has relentlessly criticized her rival for voting against a 2003 bill that boosted funding for body armor.
Boxer defended that vote Friday, noting that she was trying to pressure the Bush administration for a defined exit strategy from Iraq. “I have supported 85% of all military spending bills since I have gotten into the United States Senate,” Boxer said. “The reason I had a couple of ‘no’ votes is I didn’t think those bills did enough to protect our troops. They didn’t have an exit strategy from Iraq. I believed, as you know, that we needed to get out of there.”
Boxer added that she supports military budgets that “meet the threats we face.”
“We have to not underspend and not overspend, because there can be wasteful spending in any area. We want to make sure that we have the funds to meet the threats that we face and that’s always dictated the budgets that I’ve supported.”
UC San Diego political scientist Thad Kousser said Boxer, locked in a tight race, was “making sure she’s covering this flank.”
“She wants to emphasize to those few swing voters who are still out there that even though she’s someone who opposed military action in the past, that she’s going to vote for providing veterans services and she takes these issues seriously.”