NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE
May 20, 2014 9:21 AM
The VA and the Limits of Liberalism
By Jonah Goldberg
Many have noted, including our own John Fund, that the VA scandal poses an acute threat to the Obama administration because of how much its problems resemble the criticisms of Obamacare itself. But let’s imagine there was no Obamacare. Let’s imagine that Obama had actually followed through on his occasional promises to focus on the economy and jobs first and foremost and didn’t blunder into the huge wasteful distraction that is the Affordable Care Act.
The lessons of the VA would still be a problem for Obama and for liberals generally.
Why? Because the Democratic party simply is the party of government. It is the party that insists on the nobility, efficacy and intellectual superiority of government. The VA is at the intersection of all the things liberals insist are wise and good and just about government. It is government-run healthcare. It is the tangible fulfillment of a sacred obligation the government has with those who’ve sacrificed most for our nation. It is also the one institution and/or constituency that enjoys huge bipartisan support. The VA, rhetorically and politically, is more sacrosanct and less controversial than Medicare, Social Security, road building, the NIH, or public schools. We are constantly told that we could get so many wonderful, super-fantastic things done if only both sides would lay down their ideological blah blah blah blah and work together for yada yada yada. Well, welcome to the VA. How’s that working out for you?
The White House keeps saying these horrible cases of deception and wrongdoing are “isolated incidents” and not “systemic.” As I asked last night on Special Report, how many isolated incidents do you need before they become systemic? Right now, allegations have surfaced in 19 states. That feels systemic to me. But what do I know?
I do know that the VA has had problems of one sort or another for decades. The current allegations are particularly egregious, but the fact that the VA is plagued by bureaucracy and inefficiency is hardly a revelation. It’s certainly not news to Obama, who acknowledged many of the problems as a candidate and was briefed on them after he was elected. Then senator Obama told the VFW in 2007, ”No veteran should have to fill out a 23-page claim to get care, or wait months — even years — to get an appointment at the VA.” He continued, ”When we fail to keep faith with our veterans, the bond between our nation and our nation’s heroes becomes frayed. When a veteran is denied care, we are all dishonored.” And given that in most of his State of the Union Addresses Obama has gone on and on about improving government efficiency and cutting red tape generally, you’d think the VA would be near the forefront of that effort.
It is absolutely true that the VA was plagued with problems before Obama came into office and Republicans who talk a lot about how much they love the military are open to criticism as a result. But Democrats talk about how much they love the government. And everything they need to make the VA work is available to them. And yet, it’s a mess and has been a mess for decades. Why? Maybe it’s a mess because such messes come with the territory when you put bureaucrats in charge. Criminality, as alleged, may not be inevitable (though I’m not so sure). But rationing, incompetence, bloat, waste, rent-seeking and a sort of legal corruption certainly are.
You would think that liberals, out of a desire to protect their brand, would worry more about making sure government handled what is already on its plate better before worrying about adding new responsibilities. This administration, and this president in particular, has insisted that they should be judged by their competence and intelligence. They’ve laid down markers that they will prove that liberalism can go big because they’re just so darn smart and good.
That creates a bind for this president. Was fixing the VA a priority or not? If it was a priority, how come after almost six years, it’s such a godawful mess? Are you just not up to the job of managing it? And, if it wasn’t a priority, why not? Were you just pandering to veterans? Neither answer is good for this president — or for liberalism.