Tuesday, March 06, 2007

"Support the troops" rhetoric: as flimsy as a yellow ribbon

After the Walter Reed scandal is thoroughly investigated – something that would not be happening, by the way, if the Republicans were still running Congress – it will be fascinating to see whether GOP rhetoricians continue to proclaim that they are the true protectors of our fighting men and women.

I would imagine that they will persist, if only because “support the troops” has long been such a durable party line and habits are hard to break. Just recently, for instance, they made it clear during the House debate over Iraq that those who disagreed with the Decider’s troop escalation plan were clearly not “supporting the troops.” Last autumn, when the verbally clumsy John Kerry botched an Iraq joke, he too was assailed for not “supporting the troops.”

The GOP message is that the Republicans, who have basically run Washington for the last six years, enjoy a monopoly on “supporting the troops,” and the message starts at the top, with the supporter-in-chief. As President Bush declared last December, during his most recent trip to Walter Reed, “We owe them all we can give them. Not only for when they're in harm's way, but when they come home to help them adjust if they have wounds, or help them adjust after their time in service.”

But now that leaders of the governing party have been outed for allowing ex-soldiers to live in squalor; for trying to do treatment on the cheap even while the Iraq caseload was expanding; for privatizing Walter Reed support services by awarding a contract to (surprise) a former Halliburton official, thus trimming the support personnel staff from 300 to 50…now that all this has happened, with more to come (such as a broader probe of Veterans Affairs secretary Jim Nicholson, an ex-Republican national chairman with no previous experience advocating for vets), it would appear that the GOP’s traditional “support the troops” rhetoric has proved to be about as flimsy as a yellow ribbon tied to a tree.

Some commentators have equated this scandal, which victimizes vets, with the Katrina debacle that victimized the poor of New Orleans. But that strikes me as a facile comparison – because, in some ways, the Walter Reed scandal is worse. Notwithstanding all the Bush administration incompetence that was exposed in the wake of Katrina (incompetence that was heavily documented by House Republican investigators, to their credit), a hurricane is still an act of nature. Whereas Walter Reed is an act of man – or, more accurately, it is the product of man’s inaction.

Problems at the army medical center have been surfacing in the press since 2003, long before the Washington Post blew the whistle in its February series, but there is scant evidence that anybody in charge took the reports seriously – not the congressional Republican overseers, not the president who repeatedly trekked to the place for photo ops, and not the Walter Reed director who was warned, in a memo last autumn signed by a high-ranking subordinate, that unless more federal workers were hired, “base operations and patient care services are at risk of mission failure.”

And why was this subordinate, Garrison Commander Peter Garibaldi, urging that more federal workers be hired? Because, as reported by the Army Times newspaper, he was concerned about the privatizing of services at the health facility. Thanks to cost-cutting measures initiated by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, coupled with Bush’s “competitive sourcing” program, private companies were being tapped to handle facilities management, patient care, and guard duty. As a result, many skilled government workers decided to leave. Yet, while all this was happening, the caseload expanded, courtesy of the wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq. (Garibaldi’s request for more workers was ignored, by the way.)

The congressional committees, one of which was meeting today, will have to determine whether the Walter Reed scandal is a product of simply human incompetence, or a conservative ideological hostility to governance, or a combination of both. (The same debate took place after Katrina.) A verdict may be delayed until the probes are exhausted, because even some of the Republicans, notably congressman Tom Davis of Virginia, are now saying that Walter Reed is merely "the tip of the iceberg." But they know that already; back in the spring of 2005, VA chief Nicholson, the ex-Republican chairman, admitted that the VA had underestimated the number of vets who were expected to seek treatment that year...by nearly 80,000, because somehow the agency hadn't taken the growing Iraq caseload into account.

Don’t expect any guidance on the competence/ideology question from the Bush administration. Dick Cheney offered a few words yesterday, but he’s about as credible these days as Ann Coulter. Cheney said, “There will be no excuses, only action, and the federal bureaucracy will not slow that action down.” Two observations: If the press hadn’t exposed what was wrong, he would be urging no action today; and his attempt to blame “the federal bureaucracy” (which, as we know, is a code phrase for “big-government Democrats”) conveniently overlooks the privatization issue. Besides, the calendar tells me that he and Bush have been in charge of that federal bureaucracy six years in a row.

As for Bush - who has already mapped future budget cuts in veterans' health care - he has been largely AWOL on this scandal. Spokesman Tony Snow said the other day that when Bush saw the Post series, “that was the first he was aware of what was going on…” (I seem to recall Bush saying in the past that he doesn’t read newspapers, but never mind.) And when Snow was asked whether Bush was taking charge of the situation, he replied, “he had a very busy weekend, and he was on the road Thursday and Friday, as well. I’m not aware of any reach-out calls to ask people.”

Actually, Bush did surface today, with a speech to the reliably compliant American Legion. At one point he announced that "I have also directed the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to lead a task force composed of seven members of my Cabinet to focus and respond to immediate needs." That would be the aforementioned Jim Nicholson, the ex-GOP chairman who is dismissed by veterans groups as unresponsive and over his head; as one VFW official reportedly complains, "there is no free flow of information since he took over."

Heckuva job, Jimmy.

One might assume that the Democrats will benefit politically from this episode, that they will use their oversight role to demonstrate that they, not the Republicans, are truly the people who “support the troops.” Indeed, there are reports that the House Democrats have already huddled in private about this issue. But given the fact that these are the same House Democrats who continue to spin their wheels over Iraq (torn, as always, between their get-out-now liberal faction and their more cautious moderate faction), it’s no slam dunk that they will fully grasp this gift that the GOP has bestowed upon them.