Nostalgia is selective. No one remembers the same thing, as with the eighties. That decade opened with John Lennon getting shot dead, and the creation of both CNN and MTV, followed by the rise of Michael Jackson and Madonna, and the first workable desktop computers popped up in offices everywhere. Out here in Los Angeles, the 1984 Summer Olympics were a big deal, even if the Soviet Union and most of the communist world boycotted the whole thing, but that was okay – at the end of the decade the Berlin Wall fell and soon after that there was no more Soviet Union. So there! Others will remember other things – Ronald Reagan in the White House and the rise of supply-side economics, where the poor and unlucky have to wait for help until deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations eventually make things wonderful for everyone, and then they can help themselves, without the government doing anything. It was an odd time, and the odd thing is that even if that decade opened with a severe global economic recession that affected most of the developed world, depending on where you were standing, there did seem to be a lot of money sloshing around.
It was like that out here in Southern California, where the economy at the time was driven by aerospace spending – advanced aircraft and amazing satellites and all sorts of gee-whiz weapons systems, and the electronics to make all of that work. Ronald Reagan may have thought that almost all government spending was stupid, but not spending on gizmos, or on anything that had to do with the military. Those of us who worked in aerospace at the time, even on the edges, did quite well – but that’s a matter of where you were standing, and some perspectives are unique. For example, the new father-in-law, by pure chance, was a Reagan guy, his Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs in fact, and there was that weekend in San Diego with him and the new wife. He spoke at the opening of a giant new Veterans Hospital down there – very fancy – and then it was off to shipyards at the harbor, for the dedication-christening of the second of two massive hospital ships, converted massive oil tankers.
Billions of dollars had been spent down there, so it was chatting with Pete Wilson, the Republican governor at the time, and his quiet little wife – and then watching the elderly matriarch of the Scripts publishing empire do her smash-the-champagne bottle thing on the prow of that monster, which did not go well. It took her a few tries. That only works well in old newsreels. After that it was a big dinner for everyone at the Hotel Del Coronado – but Marilyn Monroe wasn’t slinking around that night, at that place where Baum wrote the Wizard of Oz books. But that was the eighties. There was always more than enough money, for the right things, for the military.
That couldn’t last. Supply-side economics didn’t quite work out as planned and Reagan did have to raise taxes a few times, just to pay the nation’s bills, and the divorce was finalized the day the Berlin Wall fell, so there were no more visits to the Pentagon at Christmas, and Reagan was followed by the more sensible George H. W. Bush, who was always talking about the “prudent” thing to do and who only lasted one term, and he was followed by Bill Clinton. Lavish military spending became targeted military spending, and the aerospace industry out here faltered – Hughes ended up making more money transferring their military satellite expertise to that DirecTV thing they invented – and the Department of Veteran Affairs and its hospitals and programs returned to their previous obscurity. All that stuff was still funded, but it was funded at prudent levels. As they say in the infomercials, set it and forget it.
That couldn’t last either. Tossing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait didn’t put much strain on the system – the number of injured troops from that, who would use the VA’s services after they were discharged, was almost insignificant – and Clinton’s war in the Balkans was an air war, fought from a distance. There were no American combat injuries, and thus no badly messed up combat veterans, because there was no combat as such. The VA system by then had become a vehicle for delivering rather ordinary healthcare services to older veterans, from other wars fought long ago – and then the son of the prudent Bush got us involved in actual large-scale ground combat, in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. There were tens of thousands with horrendous injuries, injuries which would have killed them in the days before all the new medical advancements that actually kept them alive. The military hospitals performed their miracles, but then, being unfit for further service, the grievously injured were discharged with great honor and their cases handed to the VA for years of working hard at some sort of recovery of any sort of normal life that might be possible – and that overloaded the system. It broke, and that meant President Obama has his first real scandal on his hands. We owed these guys everything, and we couldn’t deliver, and that was on Obama’s watch.
That meant that Obama had to act, and he finally took a stab at that:
President Barack Obama vowed on Wednesday to get to the bottom of allegations that veterans suffered long delays in getting healthcare and made clear Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s job may be on the line, as he scrambled to contain a spreading controversy.
“If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period,” an angry Obama said.
The president appeared in the White House press briefing room moments after meeting Shinseki and Rob Nabors, the top Obama aide who is leading a review into allegations that long wait times for veterans seeking medical treatment could have led to some deaths.
He said he expects to get the preliminary results of a review about the scope of the problem at the Veterans Administration next week, and that anyone found to have manipulated or falsified records at the VA must be held accountable.
“When I hear allegations of misconduct, any misconduct, whether it’s allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books, I will not stand for it, not as commander in chief, but also not as an American,” Obama said.
That’s saying the right thing, but he’s not seeking an obvious villain:
Obama sidestepped a question as to whether Shinseki had tendered his resignation, but hinted that the retired four-star army general may not want to stay on if it turns out the allegations are as sweeping as suggested.
“If he thinks he’s let our veterans down, then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve,” Obama said. “At this stage, Ric is committed to solving the problem and working with us to do it.”
Obama is framing this as a systemic problem, even if angry folks want the head of the VA gone, now, but that may not fly:
“We need answers, leadership and accountability, none of which we’ve seen from the Obama administration to date,” said Republican Senator John McCain. … “If you don’t do your job, you get fired,” said Representative Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Instead, he said Phoenix VA medical center director Sharon Helman, who was put on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into allegations that long wait times for care at the local VA hospital and clinics were covered up, received an $8,500 bonus in April.
Shinseki on Wednesday rescinded that bonus, which was granted in error, the VA said.
The political narrative the Republicans are developing is clear here – Obama can’t manage a damned thing, he’s like a confused little kid, and all Democrats are like that. The country needs folks who know how to get things done, perhaps a businessman like Mitt Romney, although no one has mentioned him yet – but the Department of Veteran Affairs does oversee around seventeen hundred hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and such. It’s the nation’s largest healthcare organization, bar none, and the idea here is that it shouldn’t be run by amateurs, or Democrats. Nothing should be run by those peace-and-love hippie Democrats. Competent adult management is everything:
Republican lawmakers intensified their criticism of Mr. Obama, and some made it clear they intended to use the incidents at the hospitals as fodder for a broader political theme about incompetence in his administration.
“The election of President Obama ushered in a new era of big government and with it a renewed flurry of mismanagement,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican whip, said in a statement. “If the president truly did not know about these scandals and mistakes, we should doubt his ability to properly manage the leviathan government that he helped to create.”
Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 Republican in the House, told reporters on Tuesday that Mr. Obama had not acted swiftly enough. He added that “it is time for our president to come forward and take responsibility for this and do the right thing by these veterans and begin to show that he actually cares about getting it straight.”
The Republicans may be able to ride that horse to victory in the November midterm elections, but the New Republic’s Alec MacGillis sees that as a dangerous ploy:
For starters, there is the matter of funding. If there’s been one side pushing for greater resources for the Veterans Administration in the age of austerity these past five years, it hasn’t been the Republicans. It was the much-maligned economic stimulus package of 2009 that included $1 billion for the V.A. While the V.A. itself was protected from the budget sequestration that Republican fought to keep in place last year, many other veterans programs – providing mental health services and housing, among other things – were hit hard by the sequestration cuts. And when the Senate was poised to pass a $24 billion bill for federal healthcare and education programs for veterans three months ago, Senate Republicans, led by McConnell, blocked it in a filibuster, saying the bill would bust the budget and complaining that Senate Democrats had refused to allow an amendment on Iran sanctions to be attached to the bill.
They could be called out on that, and there’s also this:
There is a pretty basic reason for backlogs at V.A. facilities and in the disability claims process, the other ongoing V.A. mess. Put simply: when you go to war, you get more wounded veterans, and in a country without a universal health care system, they are all funneled into this one agency with limited capacity. Every one of the Republican leaders quoted above attacking Obama for the V.A. backlogs strongly supported launching the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that resulted in nearly 7,000 fatalities and a huge surge in medical needs and disability claims. Nearly one-half of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have filed claims for permanent disability compensation. These claims need to be assessed for their validity, just as we attempt to do with claims for other programs, such as Social Security disability, unless we want to simply throw open the doors on a compensation program that is already expected to cost close to a trillion dollars for Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Making the assessment all the more challenging is the nature of the disability claims being made. Awarding disability status for a missing limb is easy. Harder are the much larger numbers of claims for traumatic brain injury caused by the IED explosions that were the greatest threat to our service members in these two wars of occupation.
You want wars, you get this:
Something, it appears, happened around 2003 that caused the rate of traumatic brain injuries in the U.S. military to spike. Now what could that have been? Whatever it was, it happened while Barack Obama was in the Illinois state Senate, giving an obscure speech against invading Iraq. He is now having to reckon with the fallout from that event, as is his responsibility to do as commander in chief. But you’d think that those who had actually played a part in bringing about that event would have enough self-awareness to resist scoring political points off of the years-later fallout. Apparently, though, even that is too much to ask.
Hey, it’s an election year, and this is quite a mess:
Nearly 970,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans deployed overseas since 9/11 have filed a disability claim, according to a Freedom of Information Act request released to Veterans for Common Sense this month by the Veterans Benefits Administration.
And due to medical advances, many service members who would have died from their injuries in past wars are now being saved, but they are returning home with more numerous and more complicated injuries. Vietnam veterans typically claimed three or four injuries. Now a single veteran from Iraq or Afghanistan routinely submits a claim with the number of injuries in the double digits. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has also changed the rules to give more benefits to veterans.
Maybe Obama shouldn’t have changed the rules to give more benefits to veterans, but the Republicans would have pounced on him for not doing so, and now they can pounce on him for the multiple medical nightmares they themselves generated with the wars they created, one of which he famously called a dumb war – as if that matters now. They’ve got him coming and going. He’s toast.
In the Atlantic, however, Jordain Carney and Stacy Kaper in this item see this mess as “a failure with many silent fathers” that includes Congress, the VA leadership, and the past ten presidential administrations:
In many ways, the Obama administration is paying for the negligence of past administrations, dating all the way back to President John F. Kennedy, who authorized the decade-long use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. But it wasn’t just Kennedy. Under President Johnson, Agent Orange was the dominant chemical used during the war. President Nixon halted its use, but a long line of presidents either refused to acknowledge the damage done or failed to address it.
President Carter’s VA created the Agent Orange registry, where veterans who were worried about potential side effects could be examined. But four years later, a GAO report found that 55 percent of respondents felt that the VA’s Agent Orange examinations either weren’t thorough or they received little or no information on what long-term health impacts exposure could cause. … The government’s long-standing failure to address the damage done to veterans by Agent Orange mirrors the larger failure of the VA – it spans generations and party affiliations, and every effort to fix it comes with unintended consequences.
Yeah, but Obama is the one left holding the bag now, and J. D. Tuccille argues here that the VA hospitals’ wait-list problem is just what happens when you have socialized medicine:
This should surprise nobody. Canada’s government-run single-payer health system has long suffered waiting times for care. The country’s Fraser Institute estimates “the national median waiting time from specialist appointment to treatment increased from 9.3 weeks in 2010 to 9.5 weeks in 2011.”
Likewise, once famously social democratic Sweden has seen a rise in private health coverage in parallel to the state system because of long delays to receive care. “It’s quicker to get a colleague back to work if you have an operation in two weeks’ time rather than having to wait for a year,” privately insured Anna Norlander told Sveriges Radio. … An article in The Local noted that “visitors are sometimes surprised to learn about year-long waiting times for cancer patients.”
It’s obvious, isn’t it? This VA thing means Obamacare is the worst disaster ever, because they’re both the same thing, sort of. Either way you get Death Panels. The private sector is the answer. The open market fixes everything. It’s that Invisible Hand thing again.
Salon’s Joan Walsh is not impressed with such arguments:
There’s real trouble at the VA, but there’s bigger trouble for the Republican Party, which purports to love veterans but does little to help them. Thom Hartman recently ran down the list of pro-veteran measures the GOP has blocked. Earlier this year Senate Republicans filibustered a bill to boost VA funding by $21 billion and restore military pensions cut in the Murray-Ryan budget deal. They opposed President Obama’s $1 billion jobs bill to put unemployed vets to work in 2012. They’ve killed bills to help homeless veterans and promote vets’ entrepreneurship.
And in the current crisis, there’s yet to be a genuine GOP answer to the problems at the VA, beyond anti-Obama grandstanding. Do they want to voucherize veterans’ health care, like they do Medicare? Abolish the VA entirely? “Privatize” it, whatever that would mean?
They’re not saying. They just know that Obama is squirming and they can keep him squirming, at least until the midterms. All they have to do is to say that they’re outraged, and everyone should be, as everyone is, actually. That’s sweet.
Slate’s John Dickerson, however, is pretty fed up with all of this:
One primary reason to despair is that we’re already living at peak outrage. Fake umbrage-taking and outrage-production are our most plentiful political products, not legislation and certainly not interesting solutions to complicated issues. We are in a new political season, too – that means an extra dose of hot, high stakes outrage over the slightest thing that might move votes. How does something get recognized as beyond the pale when we live beyond the pale?
What makes the VA scandal different is not only that it affected people at their most desperate moment of need – and continues to affect them at subpar facilities. It’s also a failure of one of the most basic transactions government is supposed to perform: keeping a promise to those who were asked to protect our very form of government.
That’s pretty basic, and Dickerson offers a suggestion:
In this time of political purity tests, let’s require a purity test for the constant state of alarm. The next time someone turns their meter up to 11 – whether it’s a politician, a pundit, or your aunt on Facebook – their outrage should be measured against what has already happened at the VA.
This is the real deal. Whatever Karl Rove says isn’t. Whatever Bill Clinton says isn’t. But what then – what do we do now? Firing Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki might feel good, but would fix nothing. Hiring Mitt Romney to run the VA doesn’t match his skill set – he’d lay off everyone and sell the parts to the Chinese, take the profits, and then build another big house, with an elevator for his cars, out here in La Jolla. And privatizing the VA would be even crueler – here’s some money, go buy what you need from the lowest bidder out there on the open market, if you can find one – you’re on your own. And there will be no more money to fix the system. Republicans are adamant – no new spending and no new taxes, ever. Grover Norquist said so.
Where does that leave us? Maybe that leaves us longing for the eighties, but nostalgia isn’t policy. And that was a very odd time anyway. Surviving that decade is enough for anyone.