Outgoing Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin wants you to know that it wasn’t his fault. It seems he will not go quietly, though he most certainly should.
Hours after Shulkin’s dismissal, he published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he made himself out to be a martyr. The career public servant suggested that his tenure had been broadly successful, though not without its challenges. His ouster was, he implied, the result of a “brutal power struggle” within the administration over whether or not to pursue a partial privatization of the VA system. Shulkin, standing nobly in defense of the welfare of veterans, opposed privatization. He had to go.
“In recent months, though, the environment in Washington has turned so toxic, chaotic, disrespectful and subversive that it became impossible for me to accomplish the important work that our veterans need and deserve,” Shulkin wrote. “It should not be this hard to serve your country.”
This is a savvy tactic. In one swift stroke, Shulkin transformed himself from a flawed bureaucrat facing a variety of scandalous accusations into a hero of the Resistance, standing athwart heartless profiteers and indiscriminate market forces. This tug on Democratic heartstrings seems to have done the trick. Politico labor reporter Timothy Noah saw in Shulkin’s piece the implication that someone in Trump’s orbit might gain personally from the privatization of the VA. Vox’s Matt Yglesias indicated the VA hospital system’s very existence “threatens the Kochs’ ideological project.” Liberal grassroots organizer Holly Figueroa O’Reilly said Shulkin’s dismissal was definitive proof that VA privatization was both imminent and “dangerous.” And so on. A variety of liberal politicians followed suit; opposition to privatization has become a litmus test for Democrats ahead of the Trump administration’s effort to confirm a replacement Veterans Affairs chief.
This is the debate that Shulkin wants America to have. He surely prefers to present himself as a victim for a cause, rather than a substandard manager of an agency in perpetual crisis. It deflects from the fact that Shulkin long ago lost the confidence of the president, had surrounded himself with an ever-shrinking circle of loyalists, and had reportedly refrained from contact with his chief of public affairs. “[I]n a sign of how deeply the secretary’s trust in his senior staff has eroded,” the Washington Post reported earlier this month, “an armed guard now stands outside his office.”
Though the entire blame for the VA’s crisis cannot be laid at the feet of the department’s secretary, the agency continues to perform as one would expect from Washington’s most poorly managed bureaucracy. Just three weeks ago, Shulkin announced the overhaul of the leadership of what an outside consulting firm identified as nearly two dozen underperforming VA hospitals. The move came following the release of a blistering Inspector General’s Office report alleging systemic “failed leadership” and a “climate of complacency” at the VA under Barack Obama (when Shulkin served in a ranking role). At the DC VA Medical Center, for example, incompetence put patients at “unnecessary risk and resulted in a breakdown of core services.”
What’s more, Shulkin’s offering himself up as a sacrifice to the virtues of government distracts progressives from the fact the VA’s third most senior official, Vivieca Wright Simpson, was forced to resign. It was revealed that she made false statement to ethics investigators and doctored emails to make it seem like the secretary was receiving an award from the Danish government. But there was no award. That was just a pretext to justify using taxpayer dollars to pay for Shulkin’s wife to fly to Europe for an extended 10-day trip. Investigators also alleged that Shulkin accepted improper gifts, including rare and expensive tickets to a Wimbledon tennis match, and told a departmental aide to serve him and his wife as a “personal travel concierge.”’
If the country wants to have a debate about whether VA hospitals perform similarly or better than non-VA hospitals, it isn’t going to be a particularly satisfying argument. The few studies that exist comparing the two have found that the variance of health outcomes in patients is modest if not negligible. That’s beside the point. If you believe that care for America’s veterans and the competent management of America’s VA hospitals are more important than an esoteric and partisan feud over the value of public and private healthcare models, you should not allow Shulkin to distract you from his subpar performance. Unfortunately for the country, Shulkin managed to manipulate hundreds of Trump opponents into doing just that. And all it took was a cheap gesture of passive aggression toward the president. It’s only too easy.