Party to a Scandal

It seems somehow profane—if grimly appropriate—that America is spending this Memorial Day weekend sifting through evidence that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has become so unwieldy, antiquated and (in some cases) corrupt that some ailing veterans have effectively been left to die in the waiting room, and then, for good measure, had their files deleted or fudged, so as not to arouse suspicion in the agency.

Let us hope the timing of this horror story does not become even more tragically ironic by carrying on until the eleventh of November.

In the meanwhile, as Congress, the executive branch and the fourth estate proceed to ascertain precisely what malfeasance occurred at the VA and to what extent, we can take mild comfort in the assurance that such a thorough investigation is now taking place—albeit after an unpardonably long period of not taking place when it could have.

Further, we might take the opportunity to examine how and why this story came to the public’s (and Washington’s) attention and, more broadly, why certain scandals are dealt with and why others are ignored.

To be sure, some of these so-called investigations are bald, cynical displays of partisanship—a means by one political party of humiliating the other in order to curry favor with voters, no matter how silly or innocuous the supposed crimes might be.

Into this set can be placed the Republican Party’s continued fascination with the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. The allegation, as it were, is that the Obama administration knew immediately that the assault had been premeditated, but publicly asserted otherwise in order to avoid looking weak in the months leading to the 2012 election.

It would be a compelling story if there were any evidence to support it, but alas, there is not. Instead, there is the steely determination of some in the GOP to keep this narrative alive for the purpose of making President Obama look bad and effecting the rise of a Republican majority in the Senate in November’s midterms.

But what about the real scandals in the recent past—the ones that truly do undermine the integrity of our democratic system? Is the official scrutiny of these also irretrievably tethered to partisan political calculations?

It would appear so, albeit with varying degrees of importance.

The Watergate burglary and subsequent cover-up might have been textbook examples of justice obstruction and abuse of power, but the Senate hearings on the matter convened in a Congress that was heavily Democratic, and therefore predisposed to making President Richard Nixon’s life a living hell. Likewise with the Congress in 1987, during the investigations of the Iran-Contra caper.

Would these prosecutions have proceeded with Republican chairpersons? We cannot know for sure.

In any case, what does it take for the majority party in Congress to embark upon a full and honest accounting of crimes committed by officials in the same party? How does the rare comprehensive ethical housecleaning in government come about?

In an early episode of the ABC drama Scandal, a gang of political operatives hatches a scheme to commit a particularly heinous offense against the democratic process. When one of the conspirators expresses moral qualms, another pipes in, “It has to be unanimous. The only way we trust each other is if everybody’s ass is on the line.”

I think that’s the answer. In order for the investigation to be bipartisan, the scandal has to be bipartisan. The only way one political party will purposefully inflict self-harm is when the other party is in the line of fire as well.

That, in so many words, is what has occurred at the VA.

Yes, the sorts of book-cooking and wait-listing that have so enraged folks across the political spectrum have undoubtedly occurred on President Obama’s watch. But it is equally plain that the root causes of these digressions—namely, the horrifyingly sloppy and short-sighted ways in which the nation has sent its young men and women into war in the first place—is the responsibility of nearly every administration over the last half-century, Democratic and Republican alike.

This point has become well-understood among the electorate, and so both wings of Congress can (and now do) feel free to right this wrong without fear of being singularly throttled for it on the first Tuesday in November. Everyone’s posterior is already on the line, and so if there is to be punishment, it will be felt by all. Politically-speaking, it’s a wash.

Taking all the above to be true, we are left with the frustrating prospect that politics really does drive policy, and always will. That a party will always put its own interests before those of the country, whenever the two conflict.

How do we get them to stop? Only by ensuring that the party’s interests are America’s interests as well, and that’s an undertaking that can only begin at the ballot box.

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