Hillary Clinton's line of attack against Bernie Sanders and his democratic socialist fantasies of what he'd do as president is that she'll be the one who actually gets things done, meaning that Sanders cannot possibly ever implement his extremely expensive taxes and government expansions. It's a smart response (though I doubt Clinton will be much more successful).
Clinton had an opportunity in last night's debate to jump on a real-world example of Sanders' failure to actually fix problems—the terrible disaster that is the medical system as run by the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.). The scandal that unfolded in 2014 while Sanders was chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee highlighted everything Americans fear about government-run health care: long waits, an apathetic bureaucracy, corruption within the system, government employees cashing in and getting bonuses while the customers they were supposed to be serving died, and ultimately a significant failure to hold people accountable for what happened.
Sanders' response to the crisis has been lackluster and last night was no different. But Clinton, rather than zeroing in on this serious failure in Sanders resume, ran to his side and helped deflect attention away from the crisis by complaining about "privatization."
Actually, moderator Rachel Maddow gets some of the blame as well. The way she decided to ask the question about dealing with the V.A. crisis seemed deliberately designed to allow the candidates to redirect it to complain about Republican or conservative responses:
Secretary Clinton, I want to ask you about a national security issue that is closer to home. There are thousands of veterans, over 100,000 veterans living in the state of New Hampshire.
If either one of you is nominated as the Democratic Party's nominee, you will likely face a Republican opponent in the general election who wants to privatize or even abolish big parts of the V.A. It's a newly popular idea in conservative politics.
How will you win the argument on that issue given the problems that have been exposed at the V.A. in the last few years? What's your argument that the V.A. should still exist and should not be privatized?
"Abolish big parts of the V.A." is nonsense, but it lets both Clinton and Sanders partly dodge the problem. Here's Clinton's terrible response:
Well, first of all, I'm absolutely against privatizing the V.A. And I am going do everything I can to build on the reforms that Senator Sanders and others in Congress have passed to try to fix what's wrong with the V.A.
There are a lot of issues about wait times and services that have to be fixed because our veterans deserve nothing but the best.
But you're absolutely right, you know, Rachel, this is another part of the Koch brothers agenda. They've actually formed an organization to try to begin to convince Americans we should no longer have guaranteed health care, specialized care for our veterans.
I will fight that as hard as I can. I think there's where we can enlist the veterans service organizations, the veterans of America, because, yes, let's fix the V.A., but we will never let it be privatized, and that is a promise.
What's absurd about Clinton's answer is that she thinks that having government in control of providing healthcare to veterans means that the care is "guaranteed," when the whole scandal was that, in fact, the government employees were not providing the care and had managed to somehow incentivize lying about it so as to get bonuses. There isn't guaranteed health care for veterans now.
Maddow then shifted to Sanders, given his role on veterans issues in the Senate, and softballed a question about working on a bipartisan solution and whether that was the right thing to do (as if there would be another way for Congress to approach the problem). He agreed and then added:
Secretary Clinton is absolutely right, there are people, Koch brothers among others, who have a group called Concerned Veterans of America, funded by the Koch brothers. The Koch brothers, by the way, want to destroy Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, every governmental program passed since the 1930s. Yes, there are people out there who want to privatize it.
The last point that I'd make. I had a hearing. I had all of the veterans groups in front of me. And I said to them, tell me when a veteran gets in to the V.A., understanding there are waiting lines and real problems, when a veteran gets into the system, is the quality of care good?
Without exception, what they said, good, excellent, very good. We've got to strengthen the V.A. We do not privatize the V.A.
Veterans organizations themselves do not seem to see Sanders the way he sees himself. Tim Mak at The Daily Beast takes note that at least one veterans group saw Sanders as dragging his feet on concerns about the agency, only acting once the scandal became national news:
He held one-sixth of the hearings on oversight that his House of Representatives counterpart held. Republicans griped that they had made multiple requests for more oversight hearings, but received no response. A news host even challenged Sanders as the scandal erupted, saying he sounded more like a lawyer for the VA than the man responsible for overseeing it.
"We feel that he did not live up to his responsibilities as SVAC chairman to provide oversight into this. He keeps hiding behind the mantle [of the title]. And yes, he did pass the $15 billion piece of legislation, but that's… akin to closing the barn door after the chickens have escaped," said Matthew Miller, the chief policy officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
By the time the scandal broke, Sanders had been chairman for more than a year. While the House VA committee held 42 hearings on VA oversight, the Senate VA committee chaired by Sanders held only about seven hearings on the matter.
"The House needed a partner in the Senate to help flesh out the problems at the VA, and unfortunately Bernie Sanders was not that partner. Jeff Miller and his committee were the ones who pursued this and ultimately uncovered [the VA scandal]… only when the VA scandal broke was when [Sanders] ultimately decided to do oversight hearings," Caldwell said.
As for blaming the Koch brothers and the Concerned Veterans for America, Clinton and Sanders are flailing away at a straw man. The report put out by Concerned Veterans for America (read here) actually calls for preserving the Veterans Health Administration hospitals, but calls for veterans to be able to choose where to get their treatment. It's not "privatization" so much as liberation. Shouldn't veterans have the same medical choices as the rest of us?
Frankly it's telling that neither of them actually say anything truly substantive about the problems with veterans care other than that it needs to be improved in some fashion (and Sanders' solution that he fought so hard for was to throw money at the problem, which hasn't changed much). Sanders even remains dismissive about the extent there's an actual problem. These are two people who want to have more government involvement in civilian health care and they seem, frankly, in utter denial about the extent of the problems with the health care the government is already responsible for.
ReasonTV interviewed Concerned Veterans for America's Dan Caldwell in 2014 as the healthcare crisis was unfolding. Watch below:
(Full disclosure: David Koch sits on the Board of Trustees for the Reason Foundation, which publishes this site.)