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The VA Scandal May Become the New Benghazi—And Not Because the Right Cares About Veterans

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

When people seeking government-provided medical care are placed on unauthorized wait lists and then die, it's a big problem, that needs to be investigated, fixed, and accounted for. That's actually understating it. This is the VA scandal, which took an unusually long time to morph from a local news story about a failure of government to right wing denunciations of Barack Obama and the broader administrative state.

As it continues to unfold, I think there are three related things to keep in mind.

1). This is a serious problem.

2). Given the ideological commitments of the American right, it will always fall on liberals and Democrats to fix problems like this, but for the same reason it's incumbent on liberals and Democrats to be extremely careful managers, particularly of a genuinely socialized program like VA, and ideally not let stuff like this metastasize in the first place, because...

3). The interests of veterans and the cause of good government aren't anywhere close to the right's top priorities here. Here, for instance, are some veterans Republicans don't seem too worried about. Conservatives are treating this not as a fixable problem but as an exercise in building a narrative that will help them devolve, cut, and/or privatize veterans health services and other government programs.

Take, for instance, Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican Whip, who sounded the following technocratic note: “The election of President Obama ushered in a new era of big government and with it a renewed flurry of mismanagement. 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 create.”

Notice how he treats incidences of mismanagement (which appear to be real in this case) as a conveyance for affirming the right's main ideological raison d'être. He casts the very concept of mismanagement as an ineluctable byproduct of government. As if management failures are absent or less severe at state, local, and private levels. That's above and beyond the clear implication that Republicans intend to fold the scandal into their ongoing midterm election strategy.

The onus this places on people like Obama and Congressional Democrats to be unusually attentive managers, while perhaps unfair or frustrating, is their reality to deal with. It can't just be ignored. If it was ignored, as opposed to undetectable, that's just a huge unforced error. But it shouldn't confuse liberals into thinking conservatives have the better of the argument or shake their belief in a fallible government's ability to do big, important things.

Quality of management isn't a function of a system's relative degree of privatization. Just ask the airlines, Wall Street, your electricity company, and Target. Likewise being a good manager doesn't just mean avoiding problems, but fixing things—not dissolving the managed entities when things go wrong. Obama fixed, he addressed the overblown problem at the IRS' exempt organizations division, and for that matter he’s turned the VA's claims backlog around. There's an implicit critique of the Obama administration's management skill built into such a list, but also genuine signs of redemption. It's on them to fix this latest problem as well. But the conservative position is to literally just get rid of all these things. That shouldn't get lost in all the noise, even if current management isn't up to snuff.