Nervous Democrats in competitive races in November have found one surefire way to try to deflect the political damage from the VA scandal: calling for Eric Shinseki’s head.
With the scandal over secret wait lists at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs exploding, Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, is coming under pressure to resign not just from Republicans but an increasing number of Democrats as well.
For these anxious Democrats, throwing Shinseki under the bus is a safe play to create distance from an increasingly toxic political scandal.
Throughout Wednesday in the wake of a scathing report from VA’s inspector general, it seemed every Democrat in a close race in November was scrambling to condemn Shinseki and call for his head in the scandal—a marked contrast to their reluctance to go after Kathleen Sebelius during the early failure of healthcare.gov last year.
Mark Udall, a first-term senator facing a tough race in the swing state of Colorado, said “the systemic problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are so entrenched that they require new leadership to be fixed. Secretary Shinseki must step down.” John Walsh, a Montana Democrat was appointed to the Senate seat vacated by Max Baucus last year and considered an underdog to keep his seat in November, demanded “It is time for President Obama to remove Secretary Shinseki from office.”
Democratic hopefuls outside Washington, D.C. also didn’t hesitate to call on Shinseki to quit. Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic nominee for Senate against Mitch McConnell, called on Shinseki to quit last Thursday, saying, “We owe a solemn obligation to our veterans, and our government defaulted on that contract. I don’t see how that breach of trust with our veterans can be repaired if the current leadership stays in place.” Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate in Georgia’s open Senate seat, echoed Grimes in calling for Shinseki to step down as well.
In fact, the list of Democrats calling for Shinseki to go increasingly resembles an election simulation by Nate Silver. Democratic congressman in vulnerable seats like Nick Rahall and John Barrow and those seeking to move to the Senate like Bruce Braley are now demanding Shinseki step down. The most notable defectors on Thursday included Mark Warner, a first-term Senator from Virginia who faces a competitive re-election in a state packed with veterans and DCCC Chair Steve Israel, who is the first member of Democratic leadership to call on Shinseki to step down.
Asked Wednesday evening whether Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), one of the country’s most vulnerable Democrats, had confidence in Shinseki, a spokesman said that there was “no news currently.”
Landrieu has previously called the VA crisis “completely inexcusable,” and is collaborating with Republican Sen. Jerry Moran to propose a Veterans Affairs funding bill that would give the Secretary of Veterans Affairs increased power to reprimand senior officials for mismanagement at VA hospitals.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), another vulnerable red-state Democrat, did not immediately respond to a question from The Daily Beast about whether Shinseki should resign. On Thursday though, Pryor said at a press conference that he's not ready to call on Shinseki to step down.
But Pryor also stressed last week that reports about the VA were “extremely disturbing.” In a letter to Shinseki, the Arkansas Senator demanded a “a full explanation of your department’s plan to address this situation.”
In the meantime, a conservative veterans group linked to the Koch brothers is already running ads targeting vulnerable Senate Democrats including Landrieu and Pryor.
There is one person on Capitol Hill who notably has not called on Shinseki to resign. Republican Speaker John Boehner told reporters Thursday that while he would continue to reserve judgment, he didn’t think the VA Secretary should resign at present. “Is him resigning going to get us to the bottom of the problem? Is it going to help us find what’s really going on? And the answer I keep getting is no.”
Of course, Shinseki’s continued presence in office though provides political benefits for Boehner and the GOP. Shinseki is an easy political piñata for Republicans to hit. Just as Kathleen Sebelius at the end of her tenure at HHS became a convenient personification of the failures of the rollout of Obamacare, Shinseki has now embodies the VA scandal. The longer he stays in office, the bigger the target on his back.
The only difference between Sebelius and Shinseki is that Democrats had far more reason to rally behind the former Health and Human Services Secretary. Her failures related to Obamacare, the signature legislative achievement of Democrats in the 21st century. In contrast, VA hospitals have no such partisan patina and the VA scandal has provoked bipartisan outrage as a fundamental failure of the healthcare system that American veterans rely upon. There is no reason for Democrats to show loyalty to Shinseki as a result or “take one for the team” as he becomes a political albatross.
Shinseki’s days at the VA seem to be numbered. The only question is how many more Democrats need call for his resignation before the retired general finally falls on his own sword.