Meanwhile, Back at the V.A.

As Allahpundit writes today regarding the Sgt. Bergdahl debacle, “Old theory: Obama did this to bring the Taliban to the bargaining table. New theory: Obama did this to get the VA scandal off the front page. Think it’ll work? And even if it does, which scandal hurts him more?”


They’re both spectacular implosions, but we shouldn’t let the latest disaster completely wipe the previous one off the pages of the MSM so quickly. And fortunately, in his latest USA Today column Glenn Reynolds reminds readers that it’s still an ongoing story, one that exposes the greed inherent in socialism:

People sometimes think that government or “nonprofit” operations will be run more honestly than for-profit businesses because the businesses operate on the basis of “greed.” But, in fact, greed is a human characteristic that is present in any organization made up of humans. It’s all about incentives.

And, ironically, a for-profit medical system might actually offer employees less room for greed than a government system. That’s because VA patients were stuck with the VA. If wait times were long, they just had to wait, or do without care. In a free-market system, a provider whose wait times were too long would lose business, and even if the employees faked up the wait-time numbers, that loss of business would show up on the bottom line. That would lead top managers to act, or lose their jobs.

In the VA system, however, the losses didn’t show up on the bottom line because, well, there isn’t one. Instead, the losses were diffused among the many patients who went without care — visible to them, but not to the people who ran the agency, who relied on the cooked-books numbers from their bonus-seeking underlings.

And, contrary to what [Young Ezra] Klein suggests, that’s the problem with socialism. The absence of a bottom line doesn’t reduce greed and self-dealing — it removes a constraint on greed and self-dealing. And when that happens, ordinary people pay the price. Keep that in mind, when people suggest that free-market systems are somehow morally inferior to socialism.

The V.A. scandal also exposes the weaknesses of Obama himself. As Peggy Noonan noted late last week, “The VA Scandal Is a Crisis of Leadership:”


Mr. Obama said, when he first ran for president in 2008, that the VA system was a mess and he’d clean it up. It has gotten worse under his watch. He must be shocked. He told it to get better! He said the words!

And the word is everything. The act, the deed, the follow-through, the making it happen doesn’t seem to loom large on his agenda of concerns. Which makes this progressive era different from those of FDR and LBJ, who appropriately feared scandal and mess and kept a sharp eye on what was happening.

Some of this is surely due to the culture of Washington, where they don’t hold the idea of management in high regard. Managing isn’t interesting, like art or talking. It’s not high-class. It’s what boring people do! Interesting people make speeches and spin the press and smoke out the agenda and flip the narrative.

The interesting people who do that go on to become fabulously wealthy consultants. They’re powerful, part of the Washington establishment. Reporters cultivate them.

Nobody cares what managers know. “I’m a middle-level bureaucrat at the General Services Administration. I take my work seriously. I’m trying to encourage efficiency and make sure the taxpayer’s money isn’t wasted.” “Excuse me, there’s David Plouffe. ”

The current lack of serious and effective management damages the progressive project because it presents that project as utterly cynical. It presents progressives as people who don’t really care. If they cared, they’d oversee. They’d make sure it works when the rubber hits the road. They’d make sure the thing they supposedly want to happen (first-rate treatment for vets, for instance) happens.

Instead we have showbiz: the romantic narrative of the knight who wants to help is everything—not actually helping.

Why do Democrats put up with this? It is going to drag them down.


Because style and linguistic nuance trump competence — it mattered not that in reality, Barack Obama had less DC experience than Dan Quayle when he announced his presidential bid; he looked and sounded great — he sounded exactly like the chattering class themselves. Thus assured Obama was in the club, his lack of qualifications for what he would do if he won didn’t matter.

The obvious inference is that then-Sen. Obama sounded to the MSM much more competent than George W. Bush, but tone can trump ideology with establishment liberalism. LBJ’s Great Society was Kennedy’s New Frontier bulked up on a massive dose of steroids, but it didn’t prevent Johnson from being doomed from the start. As Jeffrey Lord perceptively noted back in 2012 at the American Spectator, despite his decades of experience in Washington, the Beltway left of the 1960s rejected Lyndon Johnson as a legitimate successor to Kennedy simply because of his Texas drawl and lack of prep school breeding. The ostracization of Johnson began in Kennedy’s administration, and then disseminated outward amongst elite ’60s leftists like radio waves, following Kennedy’s assassination:

While Kennedy gave strict orders that LBJ was to be treated at all times with the respect due his office — and this was in an era when vice presidents customarily went unused by presidents, a fate that had befallen all vice presidential occupants from the nation’s first, John Adams, to Johnson — there was something else bubbling just below the surface in the Washington that was the Kennedy era.

Robert Caro describes it this way:

Washington had in many ways always been a small town, and in small towns gossip can be cruel, and the New Frontiersmen — casual, elegant, understated, in love with their own sophistication (“Such an in-group, and they let you know they were in, and you were not”, recalls Ashton Gonella) — were a witty bunch, and wit does better when it has a target to aim at, and the huge, lumbering figure of Lyndon Johnson, with his carefully buttoned-up suits and slicked-down hair, his bellowing speeches and extravagant, awkward gestures, made an inevitable target. “One can feel the hot breath of the crowd at the bullfight exulting as the sword flashes into the bull,” one historian wrote. In the Georgetown townhouses that were the New Frontier’s social stronghold “there were a lot of small parties, informal kinds, dinners that were given by Kennedy people for other Kennedy people. You know, twelve people in for dinner, all part of the Administration,” says United States Treasurer Elizabeth Gatov. “Really, it was brutal, the stories that they were passing, and the jokes and the inside nasty stuff about Lyndon.” When he mispronounced “hors d’oeuvres” as “whore doves,” the mistake was all over Georgetown in what seemed an instant.

Johnson’s Texas accent was mocked. His proclivity for saying “Ah reckon,” “Ah believe,” and saying the word “Negro” as “nigrah.” On one occasion of a white tie event at the White House, Caro writes of LBJ that “he wore, to the Kennedy people’s endless amusement, not the customary black tailcoat but a slate-gray model especially sent up by Dallas’ Neiman-Marcus department store.” The liberals populating the Kennedy administration and Washington itself were people with an affinity for words, and they began to bestow on Johnson — behind his back — nicknames such as “Uncle Cornpone” or “Rufus Cornpone.” Lady Bird Johnson was added to the game, and the Johnsons as a couple were nicknamed “Uncle Cornpone and his Little Pork Chop.”


As Lord noted, “The attitude toward Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson that was evidenced by Kennedy’s liberal leaning staff, by the Washington Georgetown set, by Washington journalists — slowly seeped into the sinews of liberalism itself.”

Until it risked devouring their entire ideology by 2014. (And yes, Peggy Noonan wasn’t immune herself by the fall of 2008.)

At Commentary, Peter Wehner notes that the V.A. debacle illustrates that Obama is “Hopelessly Out of His Depth:”

Which zeroes in on one of the problems of the Obama presidency. Mr. Obama appears to like the perks of office. (His golf game has certainly improved.) He clearly loves the prestige of being president. And he likes to talk a lot about what should be done about things like the mistreatment of our veterans in VA hospitals, income inequality, rising poverty, higher health-care premiums and deductibles, chronic unemployment, and the exploding debt. Mr. Obama can often be heard lamenting the polarized state of our politics, hyper-partisanship, and the failure of both sides to work together. He is eager to make known his unhappiness with the aggressive acts of Russia, the brutality we’re seeing in Syria, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, and much more.

But when it comes to actual, measurable achievements–when it comes to effectively dealing with our problems rather than simply talking about them–Mr. Obama is hopelessly out of his depth.

In saying this I’m not asking anyone to measure the president against some imaginary and impossible standard of perfection. I’m simply asking people to judge him by his own words, his own promises, his own commitments. It’s not simply that Mr. Obama hasn’t achieved what he said he would; it’s that so many things have, by any reasonable and empirical standard, gotten worse, and often a good deal worse, since Obama took office. Mr. Obama has fallen short on virtually every front and on virtually every issue. He is simply awful when it comes to governing.

He would, however, be a fine addition to the Meet the Press roundtable.


Mr. Obama would certainly have as much credibility as any talking head currently on there. While Wehner notes that he’s not “asking anyone to measure the president against some imaginary and impossible standard of perfection,” that’s exactly how the MSM sold the man to the American public in 2008. If the MSM is properly understood to be “Democratic operatives with bylines,” as Glenn Reynolds call them, it’s not a dereliction of duty — it’s their job. But will they price for hucksterism on such an enormous scale?

Update: “It is at least logically possible that the progressive project is a worthy and feasible enterprise but Obama is the wrong man to lead its execution,” Jamees Taranto writes today in the Wall Street Journal. Responding to the Obama administration’s feckless handing of the VA crisis, CNN’s Gloria Borger and the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne “don’t put it quite that starkly, but that is where their thinking leads:”

It also raises the question: Who would be the right man? Few progressives would credit George W. Bush with managerial competence. Thus by Borger’s and Dionne’s logic, a necessary condition for the success of the progressive project would be the election of a president considerably more competent than anyone who has made it to the White House in at least two decades–and not just one president but an unbroken series of them, since things could go quickly wrong under a single subpar administration.

Ezra Klein suggests even that wouldn’t be enough. The editor has a 12-point analysis titled “Obama’s Management Problem.” His fourth point runs counter to the idea that the difficulty is as simple as incompetence at the top:

4. Some of this goes to how the federal government is structured. The various agencies are staffed by civil servants who the president has fairly little power over. But they’re led by political appointees who the president often knows well and trusts deeply. The result can be that rather than blaming political appointees responsible for the failures of the bureaucracies they run White Houses sometimes blame bureaucracies for the failures of their political appointees.

If Klein is right to find fault with the structure of the federal government, then the federal government in its current form cannot be “the primary answer to the nation’s ills.” Fundamental restructuring of the federal government is another necessary condition for progressivism’s success.

To agree that these are necessary conditions is not to establish that they would be sufficient ones. But that’s an abstract point. If progressivism cannot succeed absent these two exceedingly unlikely contingencies, it is as well to say it cannot succeed. The problem is ideology, not just competence.


Perhaps it’s finally time for a “fundamental restoration” of America, rather than a fundamental transformation, to coin a phrase.


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