GOP leaders' VA strategy: Blame Obama
By: Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan
May 29, 2014 06:42 PM EDT
John Boehner and Eric Cantor don’t want to make the Veteran Affairs scandal about Eric Shinseki.
They want to make Barack Obama responsible.
The “secret wait lists,” supposedly subpar medical treatment and failure to fix a bulky VA bureaucracy, they argue, are just the latest examples that the president is asleep at the switch and disinterested — or unable — to manage the federal government.
“This is a core competency question for the White House,” Cantor, the House majority leader, said in an interview with POLITICO Thursday. “And, as I have said before, this president seems to be in many areas in over his head. There are lots of issues of competency that are being raised right now about what’s going on in this government.”
With a touch more than five months until voters head to the ballot box, Republicans are beginning another chapter in the seemingly never-ending Obama scandal chronicles. The controversies have weaved a damaging narrative for the White House, and have the added benefit of distracting from the glacial legislative pace on Capitol Hill - a byproduct of a stiff partisan standoff between House Republicans and Senate Democrats.
To Republicans, Shinseki is fleeting — a figurehead who could be gone any moment. To push for his resignation lets Obama off the hook, they say. The focus on Obama is to fixate on the leader of the opposition party in the middle of an election year — and, better yet, a figure who will be around for the next two years. Concentrating on Obama helps continue the GOP’s narrative about an administration gone amok.
“The president’s focused first and foremost on the need to address the problems that have emerged,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney on Thursday. “He is also committed to making sure that people are held accountable if it’s established that there was mismanagement and misconduct.”
Scandal politics has been the backdrop of a good chunk of this House Republican majority. First there was “Fast and Furious,” the botched “gun walking” operation, and then the IRS targeting of conservative non-profit groups. Then there were reports that the Justice Department was spying on reporters. Next up were stunning revelations about secret NSA surveillance programs. Throw in the horribly botched rollout of Obamacare — the president’s signature legislative achievement — and, most recently, the deadly attacks in Benghazi in September 2012 that left four Americans dead.
Whether these scandals represent drummed-up political theater or substantive problems with the federal government is largely irrelevant. Politically, the situation is perilous for the president’s party. As the VA scandal expands, and dozens of lawmakers call for Shinseki’s resignation, Democrats are — once again — forced to talk about an Obama problem. They aren’t talking about income inequality, the failure to move on immigration reform, the unwillingness to tighten gun laws or extend jobless benefits. Their election year message is, at least temporarily, lost in the static of another scandal.
Democrats have found themselves calling for Shinseki’s resignation en masse, partially to deflect blame from Obama.
For the GOP, the initial focus is on why Obama didn’t seem to have a clue regarding the VA’s problems. Investigators on Capitol Hill and around Washington penned reports detailing the trouble as far back as 18 months ago.
That’s led to House Republican leaders going after the president in incredibly harsh — and very personal — terms.
“I want to hear what the president has to say,” an irate Cantor said on Thursday. “This is a huge problem. One resignation — as I said before — 100 resignations may not solve the problem that we’re trying to get to for the millions of veterans. Where is the president? The buck stops at the president. Clearly Shinseki is not doing a good job, okay? It’s unacceptable what’s going on at the VA. Where’s the president on this? Why isn’t he taking ownership?”
Boehner, speaking to reporters Thursday, said calling on Shinseki to resign doesn’t do much of anything.
“The real issue is that the president is the one that should be held accountable….For the president to say that he didn’t know anything about it is rather shocking. The president is going to have to step up here,” Boehner said.
This latest debacle couldn’t come at a worse time for D.C. Democrats. The U.S. economy appears to be stalled — or even shrinking. House Democrats are likely to remain in the minority for the remainder of Obama’s presidency, and are fighting to keep their grip on the Senate majority. Obama’s foreign policy is the subject of harsh criticism. And the VA scandal, once again, creates uncomfortable space between the president and his party on Capitol Hill.
This isn’t all about politics. The House Republican leadership says they believe the problems at the VA are broad — one aide said they don’t know where their probe should even begin. The problems at the Phoenix facility, they say, represent just the beginning of the scandal. That’s why Boehner (R-Ohio) and Cantor (R-Va.) have been meeting with House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) for days, trying to figure out what resources he needs to widen his probe. On Thursday evening, Cantor was scheduled to have a private meeting with Miller on Capitol Hill.
There is potential downside. Republicans could overreach — and they’re aware of that. They will try to keep the probe confined to the Veterans Affairs panel — and perhaps Armed Services — while leaving other oversight committees to watch from the sidelines.
There is some division within the House Republican leadership, though. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has called on Shinseki — a four-star Army general — to step down. McCarthy has been dealing with this issue for years, and has had enough, he said. But he’s still banging on the president anyway.
“He’s not managing anything,” McCarthy said of Obama in an interview. “This goes to the core questions about the president’s management style.”
Boehner and Cantor’s hesitancy to call for Shinseki’s ouster, however, has critics within the GOP.
“I think that Cantor and Boehner ought to be asking that Shinseki should step aside,” said Colorado GOP Rep. Mike Coffman, a member of the Veterans Affairs Oversight subcommittee.“They have the right to insist the president be more engaged, but also the president cannot run the department. He has to have leadership within the department and he’s gotta be expected to make that change, and [Boehner and Cantor] ought to be demanding that change.”
Even Democrats say privately that Obama and White House officials are to blame for some of these problems. The administration is known to keep cabinet secretaries and agency officials on a very short leash, with most major policy and personnel decisions made in the White House. If problems sprout up, the White House gets the blame.
And this White House — like many White Houses before it — has repeatedly tried to shield Obama from the political fallout of controversies. Obama and his aides are adamant that the president didn’t know or was not aware of the problems inside the agencies until they exploded into public view.
That’s left Republicans with the opening to say that Obama is in the dark, unaware of a bevy of governmental problems.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), chairwoman of the House GOP Conference, said Shinseki’s head may not be enough.
“The typical Washington response is to call for somebody to resign. That may be part of the equation here,” McMorris Rodgers said in an interview. “I don’t see the leadership that I believe we need from the administration.”
Hill Democrats, for their part, are desperately trying to come up with a response to the scandal. Vulnerable Democratic senators and House members in both red and blue states have rushed en masse to call for Shinseki’s head.
But House Democratic leaders are trying a more nuanced approach to the VA mess. Shinseki was personally lobbying them this week in a series of phone calls, all in a bid to save his own position. It’s unclear if it will work.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) have called for a criminal probe into the VA secret waiting lists, and who was responsible for creating and maintaining them. If malfeasance is found, they say, then Shinseki should step down.
“I want a criminal investigation that gets to the roots of this,” Israel said in an interview. “And if that investigation shows there was insufficient leadership, [Shinseki] should go.”
Israel, though, tried to downplay the issue of Obama’s competency and leadership.
“Look, people can make this whatever kind of political issue they want. This needs to get fixed,” Israel added. “My focus has been how to get to the roots of this, how do you fix it, and how do you punish people.”
Yet later in the day, Israel seemed to call for Shinseki’s ouster, which demonstrates the challenge Democrats face in dealing with this explosive scandal. If the DCCC chairman’s opinion is shifting on an hourly basis, it illustrates the challenges for a rank-and-file member.
“If it will help fix the problem to clean house, then yes, [Shinseki] should resign, but my main concern is getting to the root of the problem here, and I want to make sure any steps taken actually lead to drastic improvements for our veterans,” Israel said.