For Democrats, VA Problems Pose a Real Political Threat

While Republican attacks over Benghazi and the IRS may not go the distance, the burgeoning scandal at the Veterans Administration may have legs.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 28: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks during the Democratic National Committee's Winter Meeting at the Capitol Hilton February 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama said that the upcoming midterm elections will be a battle for the country's economic future and that Democrats will win with issues like the minimum wage, equal pay and college affordability. 
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George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
May 15, 2014, 2:43 p.m.

Demo­crats who be­lieve they have emerged un­scathed from the Re­pub­lic­an fo­cus on Benghazi and the IRS — which Pres­id­ent Obama has de­scribed as a “sideshow” — are not quite as con­fid­ent about the bur­geon­ing scan­dal at the Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion. As Con­gress opens hear­ings on al­leg­a­tions of secret “wait­ing lists” and vet­er­ans dy­ing be­cause of treat­ment delays, the polit­ic­al threat is con­sidered very real.

“The one that I think hurts the Demo­crats the most is not Benghazi, is not IRS, is not Obama­care,” said vet­er­an Ohio Demo­crat­ic strategist Jerry Aus­tin. “It is the Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion. The idea of hav­ing wounded war­ri­ors dy­ing and all these ter­rible stor­ies here, that is something that no one can de­fend.”

He ad­ded, “It looks like that is one that has legs.”

Long­time Re­pub­lic­an strategist Rich Ga­len sees the same thing. “Benghazi and IRS, those are things that have the coastal press rolling their eyes,” he said. “But this VA thing is huge. If I were the Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence, I would give up everything else and just throw both feet in­to the VA.”

As Aus­tin sug­ges­ted, Demo­crats are not rush­ing onto tele­vi­sion to de­fend either the VA or the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of vet­er­an claims. One of the few sen­at­ors will­ing to do so has been Bernie Sanders, the Ver­mont in­de­pend­ent. And it didn’t go par­tic­u­larly well for him when he was in­ter­viewed Thursday morn­ing on CNN’s New Day.

When he sug­ges­ted that some of the vet­er­ans who died wait­ing for treat­ment at an Ari­zona fa­cil­ity may have died from causes un­re­lated to the delay in their treat­ment, he was im­me­di­ately at­tacked. CNN’s Chris Cuomo, in a with­er­ing re­sponse, told Sanders: “You sound like a law­yer de­fend­ing the hos­pit­al, as op­posed to a sen­at­or try­ing to make sure the right thing is done.” Thrown on the de­fens­ive, Sanders nev­er re­covered, rather meekly sug­gest­ing, “We know that people die every day. We don’t know why they die.”

Not many Demo­crats are go­ing to make that kind of de­fense of the VA. In­stead, the White House is braced for bi­par­tis­an cri­ti­cism even as it cau­tions pa­tience while the al­leg­a­tions are in­vest­ig­ated. To show his com­mit­ment to fix­ing the sys­tem, the pres­id­ent has already dis­patched one of his most trus­ted ad­visers, Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, to over­see the VA in­vest­ig­a­tion.

But Re­pub­lic­ans are not sat­is­fied with the ad­min­is­tra­tion re­sponse. Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Re­ince Priebus has de­man­ded an in­de­pend­ent in­vest­ig­a­tion. “Our vet­er­ans are our her­oes and they de­serve bet­ter than a White House in­sider-led in­vest­ig­a­tion,” Priebus said in a state­ment. “They de­serve an in­de­pend­ent in­vest­ig­a­tion. Yet again the White House is try­ing to pass off a scan­dal as an isol­ated in­cid­ent when in fact it con­tin­ues to grow every day.”

Press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney, who fielded some tough ques­tions on the top­ic Wed­nes­day, on Thursday cast the pres­id­ent as out­raged by the stor­ies of VA delays. “He cer­tainly is con­cerned and angry about the al­leg­a­tions we’ve seen” in the Phoenix of­fice, Car­ney told re­port­ers aboard Air Force One on the re­turn flight from New York. If they are true, he ad­ded, “that would be out­rageous.”

The polit­ic­al per­il for the pres­id­ent comes from more than just the ab­sence of Demo­crat­ic de­fend­ers, the bi­par­tis­an nature of the out­rage, and the wide­spread an­ger at mis­treat­ment of vet­er­ans. It also threatens to once again raise ques­tions about the com­pet­ence of the ad­min­is­tra­tion to run the gov­ern­ment after the botched rol­lout of the Obama­care web­site, ques­tions the ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieves it has fi­nally quieted.

The VA is­sue is also likely to re­vive ac­cus­a­tions that Obama does not de­mand ac­count­ab­il­ity in his gov­ern­ment. As he did when there were de­mands that he fire Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Kath­leen Se­beli­us over the Obama­care web­site is­sues, the pres­id­ent is now res­ist­ing calls to fire VA Sec­ret­ary Eric Shin­seki.

Both is­sues con­trib­ute to the pres­id­ent’s over­all ap­prov­al rat­ings, which have re­cently shown signs of inch­ing above the low 40s. Demo­crats do not ex­pect them to rise as high as 50 per­cent be­fore the Novem­ber elec­tion, but be­lieve if they can hit 46 per­cent it can make a dif­fer­ence in sev­er­al races.

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