Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton spent Thursday ducking questions about a trade bill before Congress, as her chief rival for the nomination said it was embarrassing to see the party’s leading candidate hide from the biggest issues of the day.
The former secretary of state has avoided the trade issue for months, keeping mum rather than choosing sides in a debate that has split the Democratic Party. But the pressure on her to speak out peaked as the legislation headed to a House vote Friday.
“Secretary Clinton, if she is against this, we need her to speak out right now — right now,” declared Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernard Sanders, who has spearheaded opposition to the free trade measure.
“You can be for it or against it. But I don’t understand how on an issue of such huge consequences you don’t have an opinion,” he said Thursday at a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
The bill, known as Trade Promotion Authority, would grant the president power to fast-track trade agreements, clearing the way for President Obama to make a 12-nation deal with Pacific Rim countries that has become the centerpiece of his Asia policy.
It has pitted Mr. Obama and business interests against liberal Democrats and unions, all of which Mrs. Clinton wants to keep in her camp.
The trade bill also stirs up memories of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Mrs. Clinton supported when it was signed into law by her husband, President Bill Clinton. The left grew to despise NAFTA, blaming it for the demise of the U.S. manufacturing industry and 1 million U.S. jobs that were moved abroad. They warn that the Pacific Rim deal, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will be as bad if not worse than NAFTA.
When she ran for president in 2008, Mrs. Clinton said NAFTA was a mistake.
Mr. Sanders said he didn’t have trouble picking sides.
“The fight over [trade] is not splitting the progressive community. Virtually the entire progressive community in this country, virtually every environmental group in this country and many religious groups in this country are firmly opposed to it,” he said. “Why the president is for it, you have to ask him.
“This is not splitting people; this is bringing people together,” he said.
Mr. Sanders, an avowed socialist from Vermont, said the trade bill was only the most pressing issue that Mrs. Clinton has sidestepped.
He said Mrs. Clinton also owes it to voters to answer questions about climate change, domestic spying by the National Security Agency, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the political dominance of America’s billionaire class, which also are issues where Mr. Sanders has lead the charge and areas where liberal activists mistrust Mrs. Clinton.
“Those are issues. I respect the secretary. But I would like to see a civil, intelligent debate,” he said.
He called on Mrs. Clinton to answer more questions about her vote in support of the Iraq War, a vote Mrs. Clinton has said was a mistake and that she would not repeat. But her vote to go to war remains a sore point with the party’s liberal base.
“I happen to believe that the war in Iraq was a horrible, horrible mistake. I’m proud that I voted against it,” said Mr. Sanders. “I’m not here to criticize the vote that she cast years ago, but what does that mean in terms of your judgment when assessing information?”
Later, he said that a vote for the Iraq War should not disqualify a candidate for the Democratic nomination.
The prodding by Mr. Sanders did not provoke a response from the Clinton campaign.
The former first lady, senator and top diplomat has dodged questions about the trade bill and most other major issues since announcing her candidacy April 12. But she has promised to roll out detailed policy proposals after her first big campaign rally Saturday in New York City.