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Lingering Headlines, Dwindling Hope

Some cynics have suggested that President Barack Obama’s release of five high-ranking terrorists from the Guantanamo Bay war prison in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was timed to detract attention from the scandalous mismanagement of the Veterans Administration that had dominated the headlines in the preceding days. If so, the stratagem seems to have succeeded. The prisoner swap isn’t following the script of  the heart-warming remake of “Saving Private Ryan” that the administration intended, and is instead getting panned by even the most supportive critics, who find the story less rousing when everyone in Private Ryan’s unit is telling anyone who will listen that he was a deserter whose desertion cost the lives of the other men, which has forced the administration to resort to slandering those men, but at least no one is talking about the VA.
They’re still talking about it in Congress, where a deal in the works to pass a bill that will fix everything that’s been wrong with the VA the past many years. According to the few reports still being filed about the issue, the bill would cough up another $2 billion and allow whoever was tabbed to replace that Gen. Shinseki guy to actually fire someone. Negotiations have apparently stalled over how much power the VA Secretary should have to fire someone, with those crazy Republicans and their private sector predilections insisting on unlimited discretions and those sober Democrats with their public sector principles insisting on three-week appeals and other proprieties. While the negotiations drag on honorable veterans dependent on VA care will continue to sit on off-the-books waiting lists to get medical care, but the truly compassionate will be relieved to know that Private Bradley Manning’s sex-change operation won’t be delayed during his stay in prison for leaking government secrets,
Leading the negotiations are Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and independent socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont, which also does not inspire hope, but we’re hoping that McCain’s tougher approach will prevail. our experience of institutions tell us that fixing the broken ones requires that somebody be fired, although it seems unlikely that anyone appointed by the current administration will be reluctant to do so even if given the authority. The authority to clean house seems more important than that niggling $2 billion, given that the VA’s funding has tripled since 2001 even as the number of veterans has declined from 25.5 million to 21.9 million. Some loyal Democrats are still grousing that the VA is underfunded, but veterans are a key Republican constituency and even their non-veteran voters tear up at the mention of military service, so “full funding” is one of the few campaign promises that Obama has actually kept. All those dollars spent divided by the much smaller number of veterans actually seeking care from the VA would amount to a substantial voucher check, which would allow those patients to fire at will any doctors putting them on a waiting list and find other providers for care far more essential than a sex-change operation, but that is probably too much to hope for from the current government.
The situation is infuriating enough that the administration would probably just as soon have us talking about that ill-advised and extra-legal prisoner swap, and there aren’t many other promising topics of conversation to take up. The economy leaves record numbers of Americans out of work and in poverty and on government assistance, more problems with Obamacare keep popping up, that lady from the Internal Revenue Service is still pleading the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering questions about the agency’s harassment of dissident groups, and from the increasingly bloody Ukraine to the rout in Syria to the still-chugging nuclear program in Iran to the latest Chinese aggressions in eastern Asia there is little to boast about. Even those kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls that Obama frequently mentioned in his recent triumphalist major foreign policy address at West Point are still in captivity. The outraged headlines shift from topic to topic with every few days, but none inspire any faith in the administration.
Nor does the news inspire any hope in the change that will comes from the administration’s broader aspirations. The prisoner swap was probably intended to make the administration’s long-stated goal of closing Guantanamo Bay more attainable by releasing its most dangerous prisoners, but the backlash makes any further releases a provocation to impeachment. That continuing mess at the VA raises doubts about the government’s ability to manage manage health care for the rest of the country through Obamacare, especially when the Democrats are so stubborn about firing anyone, and the liberal argument that these people know best and should be allowed to run every aspect of your life seems all the more implausible. That prisoner swap is proving a fiasco for the administration, but it still might be a useful distraction.

— Bud Norman

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