President Obama finally offered his first, extended remarks on the VA scandal yesterday. It was the sort of calculated, deceptive performance we've come to expect from the administration; the President expressed outrage at allegations of secret appointment lists and "cooked books" that kept many veterans waiting months for health care. And just for consistency's sake, Mr. Obama said he wants to wait for "all the facts" before taking action and we've been told that the President first learned of the scandal from media reports. Sound familiar? It's the same reaction we've seen to virtually every controversy that has surfaced during Obama's time in office.
Meanwhile, agency whistle-blowers claim at least 40 vets died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA alone, but the actual death toll is much, much higher. The Dayton Daily News--in an investigation that has received far too little attention--discovered the agency has paid out over $36 million in claims to veterans where "delays in care" were cited in lawsuits against the VA. And that's just the tip of the ice berg; the Daily News, working in partnership with other Cox media outlets, estimates that delayed appointments and other problems at VA medical centers may have contributed to the deaths of more than 100 veterans. Over the past decade, the agency has paid out $845 million in malpractice claims, as the result of jury awards, or in out-of-court settlements.
Those types of horror stories demand immediate action, but Mr. Obama and the VA Secretary, retired Army General Eric Shinseki, seem content to let the wheels of bureaucracy keep churning along. Shinseki is waiting for the results of an internal report, which may be ready sometime next month, and Mr. Obama emphasized that process during his remarks on Wednesday. Just hours after the President's comments, Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill that would make it easier for VA managers to fire incompetent or criminal employees. But General Shinseki has indicated that he really doesn't want that authority, and unions representing VA workers have claimed the measure would deny "due process."
If this response seems underwhelming, it should. Scores of dead vets; ample evidence that VA indifference and medical mistakes contributed to their deaths, yet our "leaders" are content to wait for another internal investigation before taking action. For those keeping score at home, there have been at least six separate inquiries by the VA, GAO and other organizations detailing these problems at veterans' medical centers, and the incoming Obama team was warned about problems at the agency during the 2008 transition. But there was never any serious attempt to resolve these issues; as Charles Krauthammer noted last night, when it comes to accepting blame in the current administration, the "buck stops nowhere."
Why adopt such a feckless strategy? Because it works. Mr. Obama and his advisers know the best way to address any scandal is to delay the initial response, then profess "outrage" or "shock" at the revelations. After that, order an official investigation--either by the agency in trouble, or their friends at the justice department--and proclaim that all relevant information must be gathered before taking action. And when the "facts" are revealed months later, create the appearance of "toughness" and "action" by disciplining a few underlings, then restoring them to their jobs once the furor dies down. Or, as an alternative strategy, simply push up the retirement date for some scapegoat who is already heading out the door.
The approach works for a couple of reasons. First, Mr. Obama's friends in the mainstream press are willing to play along, and secondly, the public's attention span is even shorter than the stenographers in the media. If you don't believe us, check out the public's reaction on social media to the president's mid-morning remarks on the VA scandal. According to the New York Daily News, there was far greater outrage over interruption of The Price is Right and The View than Mr. Obama's tepid comments, or the maddening bureaucracy that has killed dozens of American veterans.
Secondly, vets are increasingly viewed as a marginal political constituency, particularly in Democratic circles. While the VA is a huge system, it only treats 8 million Americans. The number currently wearing the nation's uniform represents only one percent of our population. Overall, America's veteran population is about 22,000,000--about seven percent of the national population. That number will decline significantly over the next decade, with the passing of the last World War II veterans, and more Vietnam-era vets entering old age. In terms of electoral politics, it's a group that Democrats believe they can ignore, without serious consequences at the ballot box. Put another way: most liberal politicians are more concerned about the people who work at VA facilities--members of public employee unions--than those being treated there.
And the GOP is not without fault in this scandal. The practice of cooking the appointment books was first identified in the Bush Administration, and despite the aforementioned studies and investigations, VA leadership never followed through on an offer by the agency's inspector general to implement required fixes. President Obama campaigned on reforming the VA in 2008, yet the situation has grown worse under his watch.
But any administration can probably weather the storm when the American public is more interested in a game show that the plight of those who fought the nation's battles. In support of that theory, we offer the following Tweet, submitted by a pilot named Ethan Narber during the president's remarks Wednesday morning:
"If Obama takes up one more minutes of my 'Price is Right,' I'm going to throw the remote at my TV."
Bread, circuses, game shows and Twitter. Pretty much all you need to mollify America in the 21st Century.