Chris Hayes' VA accountability: How the left and right handle political messes differently

Rather than provide political cover, liberal writers are pressing White House to fix the VA. That's a good thing

Published May 27, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

Chris Hayes          (AP/Virginia Sherwood/Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Chris Hayes (AP/Virginia Sherwood/Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

It’s a curious thing, after years of Fast and Furious and Solyndra and New Black Panthers, to see the Obama White House embroiled in a bona fide mess. News of long wait times and cooking of records books at Veterans Affairs facilities has done real damage to President Obama’s reputation, particularly in light of the president’s long-standing commitment to turning around the sorry state of the VA.

The problem has already become a political football, which was bound to happen even if we weren’t less than six months from Election Day. Every Republican within range of a TV camera or microphone scrambled to register his or her outrage that the administration could so badly fail our veterans. A number of Democrats in hotly contested races have also weighed in, calling for the resignation of Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki. Rep. David Scott, a Blue Dog Democrat from Georgia, gave a fiery speech on the House floor last week demanding Shinseki be fired.

Reactions like those are to be expected, to a certain extent. For Democrats looking to win in a tough environment this cycle, calling for the VA secretary’s head shows that they’re pushing for accountability for veterans and gives them a contrast point with an unpopular president. And Republicans are, well, Republicans.

But it’s not just opportunistic politicians who are voicing outrage and concern. Liberal pundits and journalists are also taking the White House to task, producing reporting and commentary that provides a fuller understanding of the roots of the scandal without absolving the Obama administration of the responsibilities it bears in witnessing its ultimate fruition.

This is a twist on what is commonly referred to as the “Hack Gap.” Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum explained the term following the liberal panic that ensued after Obama’s terrible first debate against Mitt Romney: “Conservatives outscore us considerably in the number of bloggers/pundits/columnists/talking heads who are willing to cheerfully say whatever it takes to advance the party line, no matter how ridiculous it is.” In a purely political sense, the Hack Gap can be a detriment – your cheering section isn’t much good if they don’t cheer. But when it comes to something like the VA scandal, a Hack Gap is actually a good thing.

I have no reason to doubt that the Obama administration wants to resolve the VA situation as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. But the last thing needed right now is political cover. Republicans and conservatives are going to shout as loudly as they can that the VA scandal represents ineluctable proof of the failure of “big government” to bring about positive change. The administration’s best response to that is to fix what’s wrong as soon as possible.

That’s why you see commentators like the American Prospect’s Paul Waldman writing about how imperative it is for the White House to find an effective resolution to the VA fiasco. “If Democrats are going to argue that government can be a force for good, their most basic responsibility is to make government work. Despite what Obama said today, the administration has not succeeded yet in reforming this agency. Far from it.”

Kevin Drum wrote that “the charges aimed at the VHA are pretty ugly. They need to be taken seriously.” He specifically warned against turning the VA story into a partisan shout-fest: “This isn't a story that deserves to be treated like Benghazi 2.0. Leave that to Fox News. If you're going to tell this story, you need to tell it all, both good and bad.”

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes put together a segment exploring the roots of the VA scandal and its proximate causes, to include increased demand for medical services owing to ongoing international conflicts, and the inability of the VA to meet that demand despite funding increases.

Reporting like this adds necessary context and texture to the failures plaguing the VA, but it doesn’t exculpate the administration nor does it seek to alleviate the responsibility to repair the situation.

Would conservatives respond similarly were the partisan affiliations of the primary actors reversed? Hypotheticals are always a tricky business and scandal comparison is a messy affair. It is, however, very easy to imagine Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and basically the rest of Fox News either ignoring a scandal like this or doing their damnedest to spin it in the Republicans’ favor. That, after all, is their job. And they are the loudest voices on the right.

Regardless, the administration undoubtedly has a mess to deal with. Liberal and progressive writers tend to understand that it’s in everyone’s best interest to get it cleaned up rather than swept under the rug.

By Simon Maloy

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