In what was one of the most transparent attempts to dampen interest in the denouement of a scandal, the Obama administration orchestrated the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday afternoon. After weeks of appearing utterly clueless as to the severity of the scandal at the VA and the need for accountability, the pre-weekend news dump was as clever a piece of public-relations work as the West Wing has managed in months. The bipartisan calls for Shinseki’s resignation that reached a crescendo last week were answered and silenced. The former general’s departure was long overdue but finally made it look as if the White House had finally responded decisively to an issue that had gotten out of their control. In short, with one fell stroke the president solved, albeit temporarily, the most pressing political problem on his current agenda.
The impact of the resignation on the media and the political class will be decisive. Though his leaving solves none of the endemic problems at the VA, Shinseki’s deadpan monotone response to the scandal gave it a face and an address. With him gone, the investigations will return to the more mundane problems of completing the inspector general’s report as well as finding out the extent of the wrongdoing. That will play out in various congressional committees as well as in the confirmation hearings for Shinseki’s successor. But the result of the move is that the president now has some breathing room on the VA that will enable him to put forward a semblance of a recovery plan for the agency and its vast hospital system to be implemented by a new secretary. Though the incompetence of the VA—which got worse rather than better on Obama and Shinseki’s watch—provided a window into the president’s absentee management style as well as its complacent acceptance of big government corruption, the political crisis that stemmed from exposure of this scandal may be over.
But though Obama has solved his political problem, it is important to point out that merely removing Shinseki from office does nothing to fix the VA or the mindset that produced this disgrace.
Getting the VA scandal off the front pages was the president’s goal on Friday and he succeeded. The president tried to preempt his critics by accusing them of playing politics with the VA when he was still dithering and his spokesman was speaking of how he had learned about the whole thing while watching television. Without Shinseki to serve as a focal point for protest about the deaths of veterans who were kept waiting for health care in order to help bureaucrats collect bonuses, the story has already started to fade. It’s entirely possible that by the time the next VA secretary takes office, the media’s interest in the story will have waned to the point where it will struggle to compete for airtime against the daily avalanche of new stories.
But Congress and the public should not allow the president off the hook so easily.
Many in the liberal press have reacted to the problems at the VA by blaming the president’s critics or seeking to deflect attention to the stale debates about the decisions to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the New York Times put it in a particularly sour editorial on Shinseki’s resignation on Saturday, the main priority for liberals now is now to defend the existing VA system from those who believe that reform must be structural rather than superficial. At the heart of this issue is a vast federal bureaucracy in which a parallel health-care system for veterans seems to have embraced all the defects of socialized medicine. The VA is a broken model that may well serve as a model for future adventures in government health care that follow ObamaCare if it is allowed to remain in place without fundamental change.
The danger here was never about Republicans politicizing the VA’s misconduct but rather from an approach to the problem that essentially minimized the structural nature of the problems that stem from a vast government agency that no administration has ever been able to fully hold accountable. In the weeks and months that will follow, we will hear increasingly less about the VA but the debate about it should not be allowed to shrink into one about a few individuals or the abilities of the department’s next leader. The country’s VA problem isn’t fixed and won’t be by a piecemeal approach that is more interested in preserving the system that created the scandal than in changing it.