TIME Military

The Sacrificial Lambs

What the Bergdahl affair tells us about the hidden costs of a decade of war

Imagine that you are Robert Bergdahl. It’s not hard if you’re a parent. For the past five years, you’ve been terrified and obsessed. Your son Bowe has been captured by the Taliban, and you will do anything–anything–to get him released. You are a former surfer, a former truck driver, a Republican. Bowe has always been a delight and a worry, smart, fragile, ephemeral. Before he joined the Army, he lived in a Buddhist monastery. Before he left for Afghanistan, he made a deep-dive study of the local culture, history and language.

So you decide to do a Bowe-like thing. You try to show respect toward his captors. You learn their language and history. You grow your beard out in scraggly Salafist fashion. You learn that one of his captors has lost a son–shades of Homeland!–to an American missile strike. You may have been touched by Stockholm syndrome: you now know this war has been a horror on all sides. You give a speech at an Idaho Republican Party fundraiser and ask for compassion for Bowe’s captors. There have been at least three years of negotiations between the U.S. government and the Taliban, a prisoner swap for Bowe’s release that might lead to peace talks. But nothing has happened.

And then he’s released. Suddenly, you’re standing before cameras in the Rose Garden with your wife Jani and the President. In gratitude, you say the words in Arabic that precede any public speech or film or performance: “In the name of Allah, the most merciful and compassionate.” Your hometown of Hailey, Idaho, is readying a parade to honor Bowe. But all hell breaks loose. First, it’s all about Bowe. He’s a deserter. He may be a traitor. He left his body armor on his cot and walked out of his combat outpost; he left a note saying he was done fighting. (Later, it turns out he left no note.) Some members of his platoon, understandably infuriated, are on television–an organized Republican public relations assault–saying all sorts of terrible things about him. (Later, the New York Times reports that the platoon was troubled, “raggedy” even before Bergdahl left it.) There are reports that your son became a semi-spokesman for the Taliban, that he was allowed to carry a gun. (Later, there are reports that he tried to escape twice and was placed in a cage, in darkness, shackled, for weeks at a time.)

Next, they come after you. Sean Hannity says you uttered a “war cry of Allah” in the Rose Garden. Hannity has two Islamic “experts” on his radio show who don’t refute the claim. One of them asserts that you “radicalized” your son just as the mother of the Boston Marathon bombers “did.” But Hannity knows a main chance when he sees it. Back to the war cry: “And you think the father interpreted it that way and purposely said that in the Rose Garden, and it was sending a message and the President–you could see the President smiling there as he says it.”

So, somehow, after five years of mind-bending parental torture, you have become a pawn in a right-wing meta-story: the President is a secret Muslim sympathizer. Oh, and you may be a Muslim terrorist sympathizer too. You’re getting death threats. Your town cancels the parade. Finally, in your defense, a former pastor of yours tells the Christian Post that you and Jani have been “really hurt,” that you are practicing Christians. “I’ve prayed with both of them regularly,” he says. “They both have been through a torture mill that I cannot begin to comprehend–five years of a living death. It has affected their health, both physically and mentally.”

And the worst is yet to come: now there are reports that Bowe doesn’t want to talk to you, that the Army psychiatrists don’t think he’s ready for a family reunion. You’ve alluded to troubles he would have coming back, so this might not be a total surprise. But you are now experiencing the media equivalent of that steel cage in which Bowe was confined.

It is possible, of course, that Robert Bergdahl became a Taliban sympathizer during the years his son was held in captivity; it’s possible Bowe was complicit as well–we’ve seen this story before. If so, he’ll be court-martialed. But we don’t know the facts yet. And we have leaped, with reflexive bloodlust, to crucify an American family that has already suffered too much–a scapegoat sacrifice to a decade of blood, during which we leaped into Iraq, which seems to be slipping back into civil war, and distended the war in Afghanistan, all based on things we surmised but didn’t really know.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/politics


Jim Webb’s Spirit

Jim Webb
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., is interviewed by the press in the Senate subway in Washington, Nov. 13, 2012. Chris Maddaloni—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

I mentioned Jim Webb briefly in my column about Hillary Clinton’s “inevitability” this week as a potential presidential candidate. He deserves more than that. Webb is a terrific writer, a great war novelist. He is an Annapolis graduate, a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam. He has worked as a Congressional staffer, Secretary of the Navy (under Reagan) and, most recently, Democratic Senator from Virginia.

Webb is a classic, passionate Scots-Irishman, a heritage he celebrated in a book called Born Fighting, a title that he might have saved for his most recent book, I Heard My Country Calling, which is a partial memoir, focusing on his youth, his time at Annapolis and Vietnam. It’s a compelling book, not just for the story that it tells, but for the simmering anger that is never far from the surface with Webb. He’s pissed-off, like many veterans, at the slovenliness of civilian society–the lack of honor and discipline, the lassitude that has allowed a national slide toward plutocracy.

For many civilians, his politics seems rather exotic and unpredictable–as expected, he was a strong advocate for veterans when he served as Senator (His son is also a Marine, who served in Iraq). But he was also a strong advocate for normalizing relationships with Burma and for more equitable prison sentencing standards. And he is a stone populist, with a platoon leader’s obsession with the welfare of all his Marines, and the importance of a national sense of community that isn’t shaped by the power of money.

He ends I Heard my Country Calling with a story about his Aunt Lena, who lived her life in an Arkansas shack. He writes about visiting her in 1976, after having gone to work for a Republican Congressman. She wouldn’t let him insider her house. “How can you do this?” she asks. “Getting involved in Congress up there with that bunch. And then working for a Republican?” (Aunt Lena was, apparently, the last of the Yellow Dog Democrats.)

“You’ll forget us anyway,” she said. This was her real point. “They all do. Wear a pretty tie, get a big head, get a nice salary, make all those promises and then lie through your teeth so that you can stay up there.”

Hence Jim Webb’s Aunt Lena Test: Would she let me in the house today?

No doubt, Webb–like all of us–has some days when he wouldn’t even knock on Lena’s door. But I also believe that her spirit lives in his head, which is a rare thing for a politician. He really tries to tell the truth as he sees it. I’m not sure he’ll be an effective national candidate, or even that he’ll run, but I respect him as a man of honor (and as a writer, obviously)–and Lord knows, we could certainly use some honor in this race to come.

TIME 2016 Election

The Myth of Inevitability

Silhouetted by a stage light, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the University of the Western Cape about U.S.-South Africa partnership, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012, in Cape Town, South Africa. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
The Myth of Inevitability: Nothing is certain in 2016 Jacquelyn Martin—AP

Nothing is certain for Hillary Clinton in 2016

We have reached, believe it or not, the first crucial moment in the 2016 presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton has written a book. It will be launched, with Vesuvian hoopla, on June 10. Her schedule will be incredible for the weeks thereafter–an hour interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, for starters; Good Morning America the next morning; a town meeting with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. There will be joint appearances with Bill and Chelsea. And attention, Costco shoppers! Hillary Clinton will be signing copies of Hard Choices at Costco’s Arlington, Va., store on Saturday, June 14.

We are sure to be smothered by Hillary (or Hillary!, as an old campaign button had it) well past the summer solstice. There will be reviews and nonstop attempts to tease policy and controversy from the substance of the book, which concerns her time as Secretary of State. Her account of the Benghazi controversy has already been leaked. In it, she says she was “ultimately responsible” for the insufficient security at the consulate there, even though it was well below her pay grade. Happily, she fights back against the bizarre Republican campaign to find a scandal amid the tragedy. This is called getting out in front of the story, a common political strategy. Hard Choices is, like almost everything else Clinton, a campaign. How it is promoted and received will say a lot about the campaign to come, if it is to come.

As always, there will be a festering low road of speculation about Clinton herself, her health, her hair, her husband. And as always, a squalid tabloid underbuzz: Did she ask Chelsea to become pregnant to give her campaign a soft, grandmotherly tinge? Will new Whitewater papers reveal that the real estate deal was really a conspiracy to sell heroin? Monica Lewinsky has already reappeared and disappeared, coming out of seclusion to tell her story for the umpteenth time. The Clintons have long held an unprecedented primacy in academic journals and supermarket tabloids. That’s why we can’t take our eyes off them. They have big thoughts; they are creative policymakers who balance budgets; they care about the average guy, his widow and orphan. And yet their private world often seems laced with circus-sideshow overreach, both purposeful and accidental: Bill Clinton abandoned McDonald’s to become a vegan. Hillary’s top aide, Huma Abedin, married the tweeting exhibitionist Anthony Weiner.

Inevitably, there will be political speculation. Does this book mean she is running? Does her book tour prove that she “takes all the oxygen” out of the Democratic race? Is she “inevitable”? Is the Benghazi chapter “enough” to quiet the controversy? Will she learn to love the media–and will the media stop being so trashball in its Clinton coverage?

As a veteran Clinton watcher, I approach the coming spectacle with a combination of obsession, exhaustion, dread and exhilaration. This is going to be horrible fun–and crucial, as the Clintons always are. If she runs.

For the sake of magazine sales, let’s say she’s running. She’s got it locked, right? She’s the Democratic nominee at the very least, right? Ask any Republican and they’ll tell you she’s a cinch. They’ve already started their general-election campaign against her. Karl Rove is speculating that the fall she took at the end of her time as Secretary of State caused traumatic brain injury. Others fantasize that she conspired to have Lewinsky tell her story now, to get it out of the way–as if anything could. And congressional Republicans have dragged Benghazi back into public view, with stacked hearings that will amount, no doubt, to a hill of beans. Most Democrats think that she’ll not only waltz to the nomination but also crush anyone the Republicans put up, except maybe Jeb Bush–and hasn’t the Bush family saga become a moldy oldie over the decades?

But wait a minute. Aren’t the Clintons approaching their sell-by date too? Aren’t we about to become tired of their personal and policy baggage and retinue of overcaffeinated too-loyal aides spewing talking points on cable news? It can and will also be argued that the Clintons are out of touch with millennials and their handheld virtual society, out of touch with the growing populism of the Democratic Party, too closely aligned with Wall Street and untrammeled free trade, too hawkish, too closely aligned with an unpopular incumbent President. (Of course, Obama could easily rebound.) It can and will be argued, as always, that Hillary is stiff, programmed, overcautious. Exhibit A: her book-tour schedule.

It is possible, maybe even probable, that all these arguments will have the same effect on the Clinton juggernaut as a flea on a rhinoceros. Clinton is said to be the best-prepared politician to run for President in our lifetime, and that is probably true. She knows the issues, foreign and domestic; no one will outwonk her. She has the potential to run the table when it comes to big donors and endorsements. She has a presidential temperament–prudent, patient and tough. She is both funny and wise: ask anyone, Republican or Democrat, who has ever sat in a policy meeting with her. She started as a lousy stump politician but became a real trouper in the crucible of the 2008 primary campaign against Obama, especially in Pennsylvania, where she started hanging out in bars and bowling alleys and taught white working-class males that she was no quitter. Indeed, the lessons she learned in the 2008 primaries may be her quiet competitive advantage in 2016. Finally, she is a woman–an aspect of her candidacy that was foolishly underplayed by her advisers in 2008. As such, she lives in history.

Some presidential campaigns are about inevitability. Others are about energy. The best have both, but it’s rare: inevitability tends to crush energy. It makes candidates cautious. In 2000, George W. Bush raised a ton of money and secured a ton of endorsements. He was skating toward the nomination, according to the polls. “It’s amazing how close we came to losing,” says Matthew Dowd, who worked for Bush. “We were hanging on by our fingernails after McCain beat us by 18 points in New Hampshire, but McCain made some mistakes in South Carolina,” and Bush turned vicious, “and we were lucky to win.” Lest we forget: an inevitable candidate named Hillary Clinton was blindsided by Barack Obama’s energy in 2008.

Obama may be her greatest challenge in 2016 as well. It’s been reported that she has scrubbed Hard Choices for any negative references to the President. But any candidate following a two-term President has to figure out a “kinder, gentler” way to distinguish herself from her predecessor. People always want a change, a fact Al Gore and John McCain found out the hard way. It will be trickier if Obama remains unpopular. Inevitability is reality’s first casualty. If Obama makes a big mistake overseas or the economy flops, Clinton’s first job will be to say what she’d do differently, without offending the Democratic base who’ll remain loyal to the President no matter what.

Even if Obama successfully navigates his last two years in office, Clinton is likely to face more than one energy candidate in 2016. Former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, profiled by Michael Scherer on page 36, is as entertaining as a presidential candidate should be allowed to be, and substantive too. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has a new book out–aha! (perhaps)–and is wowing the Democratic left at their partisan powwows. And former Virginia Senator Jim Webb–who also has a new book out, aha!–has not ruled out a presidential campaign. All three would challenge Clinton from the populist left, a force that is growing noisier within the party, if not more populous. The moderate governors, like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, probably won’t run if Clinton does.

Any of the three populists could run an exciting and perhaps even successful campaign against Clinton. She has real vulnerabilities and, yes, hard choices to make on policies she is assumed to have inherited from her husband, especially regarding the primacy of Wall Street and free trade. Bill Clinton essentially deregulated Wall Street while he was President–repealing the Glass-Steagall laws and refusing to regulate the exotic derivatives that helped cause the stock-market crash of 2008. Will Hillary Clinton move away from those positions? Is she willing to walk away from the egregious buckraking and speechmaking she and her husband have done with the global megarich in the service of the Clinton Global Initiative? “If not, she’s red meat in this new age of economic populism,” says David “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic consultant who has been close to Jim Webb in the past.

I recently asked Webb what he saw when he looked at America a year after he left the Senate. “Groundhog Day,” he said. Nothing had changed. In his book I Heard My Country Calling, Webb writes about a country “governed by a club of insiders who manipulate public opinion in order to serve the interests of hidden elites who hold the reins of power.” That could be a call to arms for Democratic populists and Tea Partyers alike. It is a bit over the top–hidden elites?–but it is a voice to be reckoned with in a ticked-off America.

There is also a bubbling-up of what the historian Fred Siegel calls gentry liberals, the old alliance of guilt-ridden limousine riders and (mostly African-American) minority groups who are itchy to file grievances again after 50 years of remarkable progress. A 2003 Brookings Institution study showed that if you graduate from high school, wait until marriage to have no more than two babies and have a job (any job, and there are plenty out there), the chances of your living in poverty are 3.7%. Those sorts of stats–and there are plenty of others like them–are downplayed by a new generation of African-American activists and by mayors like New York City’s Bill de Blasio, who has lifted some of the work requirements imposed by Bill Clinton for people on welfare. The left argues that times have changed. The economy has changed. It’s harder to get a job. Will Clinton modify her long-held positions on welfare and the importance of two-parent families?

Then there is her foreign policy. Robert Gates’ fabulously candid memoir about his time as Secretary of Defense has some juicy tidbits–like the fact that Clinton stood to his right on the Afghan surge in 2009. He favored adding 30,000 more troops; Clinton and General Stan McChrystal favored 40,000. Her support of the war in Iraq, except for the 2007 surge there, is also on the record–but Gates has her admitting that her opposition to the surge was “political.”

That is probably the ultimate argument against Clinton. She can be prohibitively “political” and far more cautious than she needs to be. The trouble is, presidential campaigns can’t be managed like book tours. They tend to be overwhelmed by events and trivialities. There is a constant gotcha contest with the press. In a recent Politico article about Clinton and the press, one of her advisers is quoted: “Look, she hates you. Period. That is not going to change.” To make things worse, her top communications adviser, Phillippe Reines, argued that Clinton didn’t really hate the press. She brought bagels to the back of the bus. But bringing bagels to the back of the bus is an embarrassingly transparent ploy. Bringing candor to the back of the bus might be a little more successful. I’ve seen her candor more than once, but always off the record. That will have to change. If Hillary Clinton hopes to succeed, she’s going to have to drop the veil–spontaneously, quite possibly in a crucial moment, like a debate–and trust the public to accept who she really is. Absent that, there is no such thing as inevitability.

TIME Veterans

The Next VA Secretary

Eric Shinseki’s long and troubled tenure as Secretary of Veterans Affairs has come to an end. He left, apologizing for the mess he allowed to fester. This is a sad moment for an honorable man, who could not make the transition from military to civilian leadership. The question now is, how bold will the President be when it comes to replacing Shinseki? (Sloan Gibson, the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, who graduated from West Point in 1975, will be acting secretary until the Senate confirms a replacement.)

A few years ago, I wrote a TIME cover story about the Iraq-Afghanistan generation of veterans. It was a different sort of story, far more concerned with their civilian leadership potential than with their difficulties adjusting to civilian life. I wrote the story because I had embedded with the troops downrange and watched them apply the principles of “counterinsurgency” warfare in Iraq and, especially, in Afghanistan. Their job was, in effect, to govern the towns where they were deployed. They had public works funds at their disposal. They crowd-sourced the towns–for the first time in history, most likely–asking the people what sort of services they wanted. Then their leaders had to sell the people’s needs to the local Shuras, which often wanted something else (something that would line their own pockets). I watched Army Captains negotiate and contend with stubborn bureaucracies under fire.

One day in the town of Senjaray, just outside of Kandahar, I watched Captain Jeremiah Ellis negotiate with a local for the use of his house–and I realized: if he can do that here, he can run for mayor back home. Or be the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

This generation of military veterans have been trained in the political skills that Eric Shinseki’s generation forgot after Vietnam. They have been trained in how to unlock stuck bureaucracies, how to talk to average folks, how to make moral decisions based on incomplete information under fire. I’ve spent the past few years writing a book about them and I know several who would be brilliant as VA Secretary–indeed, who have experienced and thought through the problems of the system. I’m not going to name names; there are plenty others I don’t know, who might be every bit as good. But the President should take a risk, inject some energy into his flagging Administration, and appoint one of them.

He probably won’t. He has become far more cautious about his appointees: they tend to be people he knows and trusts. But Robert Gates’ recent memoir demonstrates how invigorating an outsider can be in the claustrophobia of the White House. The President and First Lady care deeply about this generation of veterans; I know this for a fact. Now it’s time for Obama to demonstrate his faith in them by appointing an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama’s West Point Speech Was Not Exciting

U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the commencement address to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point's Class of 2014 on May 28, 2014, in West Point, N.Y.
U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the commencement address to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point's Class of 2014 on May 28, 2014, in West Point, N.Y. Susan Walsh—AP

And he will be criticized for that. There was nothing “new” in his address to the West Point graduates, some will say. Others–neo-conservatives and blood curmudgeons like John McCain– will say that it was a ratification of the President’s policy of weakness and retreat. And while those of us who generally agree with the President on foreign policy might have hoped for some pyrotechnics, a more passionate defense of his policy, the substance of the speech was solid, just as the net substance of his actions overseas have been.

He began with a deliberate oversimplification:

Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve. Not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing challenges at home, that view is shared by many Americans.

A different view, from interventionists on the left and right, says we ignore these conflicts at our own peril; that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.

As a “self-described” realist, I can’t think of a member of my sect who believes that the conflicts mentioned are “not ours to solve.” We’re just extremely reluctant to use military force or—in the case of Syria—military supplies to solve them. There are other diplomatic, humanitarian and economic means that we need to use more effectively. The one initiative he did announce, the $5 billion counter-terrorist partnership fund, is a step in the right direction (especially if it helps ease the Syrian refugee crisis).

If there is a realist gripe against the President, it’s his handling of the details—his foreign policy staff isn’t very smart or subtle when it comes to the close work of diplomacy. Indeed, that’s an actual point of agreement between realists and interventionists: too often the President’s words have no consequences. He says “Assad Must Go” and Assad stays; indeed, Assad is bolstered by a chemical weapons deal that Obama blunders into. His Secretary of State, John Kerry, says something dangerously undiplomatic almost every week. Everything is ad hoc, in the moment; there is very little long-term strategic thinking.

That said, this was a realist speech. The President made no threats or promises that he couldn’t carry out, which was a relief. He refused to cave to his feckless domestic opponents–and he paid no commitment other than lip service to the human rights activists who represent a significant strain on his foreign policy staff. He offered no bright line “Obama Doctrine,” which is probably a very good thing. The last President who stood at West Point and offered a Foreign Policy Master Plan was George W. Bush, who made the case for pre-emptive war in 2002. We know where that led. The only appropriate doctrine in a world where the American military–and military spending–is peerless has to be subtle and humble: We’ll take each case as it comes. We’ll lead coalitions to help solve the problems of the world, but we also reserve the right to defend ourselves unilaterally against direct security threats. We will be prudent in word and deed. We won’t bluster about our “indispensability” but will prove it through our actions.

If there is a bright line test for presidential success in foreign policy, it’s Hippocratic: First do no harm. Obama has passed that test, with a few painful, if relatively minor, exceptions. He has ended wars, not started them, while using appropriate levels of force–drones, special operations–to continue the battle against Islamic radicalism. He has been calm and yes, realistic. He has been unfairly bludgeoned by opponents “engaged in partisan politics” and by a media that, all too often, looks at foreign policy as a “winning the day” proposition when the real purpose of diplomacy is to slowly win the future. He allowed himself to be pushed into making this speech by those forces. But he did not allow them to change his policy, for which we should be grateful.


TIME Veterans

VA Chief Eric Shinseki (Still) Must Go

Eric Shinseki
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki pauses while testifying before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing to examine the state of Veterans Affairs health care on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 15, 2014. Cliff Owen—AP

The VA is broken. It’s past time to fix this shameful bureaucratic tragedy

Back at the turn of the 21st century, when he left Washington to become president of the New School university in New York City, former Senator Bob Kerrey learned a little something about the ethos of Veterans Affairs. Kerrey, a Medal of Honor recipient who lost part of a leg in Vietnam, needed to get his home address changed. He had called his bank and settled the matter in 10 minutes. He called the VA and spoke to a hostile and not very helpful receptionist. He spoke to the receptionist’s supervisor, who told him, “You’re going to have to come in.” So Kerrey went to the VA office in New York. The receptionist again wasn’t very helpful. Kerrey pointed out that he was only talking about an address change. The receptionist said, “Talk to one of them,” pointing to customer “service” employees sitting at desks labeled A and B. Desk C was vacant. Kerrey went to Desk A, where he was told, “That’s handled by Desk C.” Kerrey asked when the occupant of Desk C was returning. “I don’t know,” said Desk A. Kerrey went over and sat at Desk C for a long while, and then a longer while. He spoke to the supervisor, who had no idea where Desk C was and told Kerrey, “Come back tomorrow.”

“You gotta be kidding,” Kerrey said, or perhaps yelled. It took 12 days to get his address changed.

I’ve heard far more serious VA horror stories ad nauseam in recent years. I know of at least one young Marine who committed suicide while waiting—months—for his medical records to be transferred from Los Angeles to Houston. I’ve also heard stories of heroic treatment performed by devoted VA doctors, nurses and counselors, but those often occurred after their patients endured a Kafka-esque struggle with the VA’s bureaucratic gate-keepers. You might expect that the system, which is staffed largely by older veterans, would have adapted with alacrity to the crisis posed by the wave of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans over the past decade. But the VA’s response has been stagnation, and worse. It is now clear that there was a conscious, and perhaps criminal, effort to camouflage the time veterans had to wait for service in Phoenix and at other VA facilities. It is alleged that 40 veterans died waiting for service in Phoenix; whether or not that proves accurate, we’re facing a moral catastrophe.

The question is, How do we change this situation? The simple answer is leadership, which is why some have called (as I did last year) for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. By all accounts, Shinseki is a fine man who has spent nearly six years lost in the system. An effective leader would have gone to Phoenix as soon as the scandal broke, expressed his outrage, held a town meeting for local VA outpatients and their families—dealt with their fury face-to-face—and let it be known that he was taking charge and heads were going to roll. Instead, Shinseki intoned the words “mad as hell” at a congressional hearing. And White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said the President was “madder than hell” about the situation. Does anyone actually find this convincing?

The President cares deeply about the troops; he visits the wounded in the hospitals all the time; it’s just not his style to make a public deal of it. But he has been sadly ineffective on the veterans–health issue. The benefits system is still rigged against recent veterans, who go to the end of the line with their claims. Five years ago, Obama promised a unified electronic records system so that a soldier’s medical history would follow him or her seamlessly from active duty to the VA, but it still hasn’t been implemented because of trench warfare between the Pentagon and the VA. More than a billion dollars has been spent on the project. A senior Administration official told me a year ago that a solution was weeks away; now the Administration is promising a new system by 2016. The President could have solved this problem yesterday, by cracking heads—and selecting either the existing VA or Pentagon electronic records system. (Believe it or not, the VA system is pretty effective but not up-to-date.)

The problem of bureaucratic stagnation at the VA (and throughout the rest of the government) could be addressed as well. Think about the lazy clerks Bob Kerrey faced. Why were they so callous? Because under the existing, antiquated civil-service system, they face practically zero threat of being fired. The President could ask for a temporary waiver of civil-service rules to clean up the mess at the VA, but that seems politically impossible. Government accountability is a popular mantra—but you can’t have accountability unless everyone, including Desk C, is held to account.

TIME 2014 Election

California’s New Jungle Primary System

Mike Honda
Liberal lion Mike Honda in D.C., where he has support from the Democratic establishment. He has served seven terms in Congress but faces challenges from within his own party Jose Luis Magana—AP

All bets are off in California's congressional races as multiple candidates from the same party face off

“I’m Guessing,” says Dan Schnur, who is running for California secretary of state, “that not many of you lie awake at night wondering what the next California secretary of state will do.” There is laughter from the crowd of maybe 30 voters. And you, too, dear readers–especially those of you who don’t even live in California–may be wondering why a candidate for a decidedly obscure political office is worthy of your attention.

Well, part of it is that Dan Schnur is an interesting guy, a longtime consultant to moderate Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger and John McCain. But he isn’t a Republican anymore. He’s running as an Independent. “I’m in favor of marriage equality and lower taxes,” he begins. “I’m tough on crime and pro-choice. I’m for immigration reform and for using test scores as a valuable measure of students’ progress. Yes, the reason that I’m running as an Independent is that neither party will have me.”

But that’s not exactly accurate. He’s running as an Independent because there were two political reforms enacted during Schwarzenegger’s time as governor of California. They were below the radar but startling, the sort of reforms that are near impossible because incumbent politicians usually block them–but they were passed by public referendum and initiative in 2010, and Schnur was one of those at the heart of the campaign to get them enacted.

The reforms are ingeniously simple. There is no more gerrymandering in California, no more congressional or state legislative districts tailored to the needs of the incumbents or the majority political party. District lines are now drawn by an independent commission to reflect actual community borders. (The commissioners are forbidden by law from knowing where the incumbents live.) Second, primaries are now multipartisan: the top two vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, face off against each other in the general election. Schnur co-chaired the Voices of Reform project on redistricting. “I wasn’t too involved in the top-two primary reform,” he says. “I didn’t think it would make much difference … but I’ve learned: this could be enormous.” Schnur and his colleagues may have actually created an electoral system that favors centrists rather than politicians who play to their party’s base. On June 3, California will go to the polls in what politicos have taken to calling the Jungle Primary.

California’s Fourth Congressional District is a perfect primer for the curiosities of the Jungle. Tom McClintock, 57, is the three-term incumbent and has long prided himself on his “constitutionalist” orneriness. He is, in other words, a Tea Party Republican. His district, in the Central Valley and foothills, is very conservative but perhaps not as extreme as McClintock is. He is, for example, in favor of amnesty for Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, because Snowden helped expose the criminal proclivities of the federal government and “I’d rather have him home talking to us than over there talking to the Russians.”

At a well-attended Saturday-afternoon meeting in the town of Mariposa, near the entrance to Yosemite National Park, McClintock endorsed a candidate for county supervisor and then addressed the crowd, many of whom wore cowboy hats and sported some elaborate facial hair. They were all het up over the federal government and the “left-wing environmentalists,” as McClintock described them, calling the federal tune in Yosemite. Some of their complaints sounded reasonable: a local toad was about to be labeled “threatened,” which would further limit the local water supply (there’s been a terrible drought in California)–but the toads were dying out, according to the locals, because the feds had stocked the lakes with trout, which ate the tadpoles. The feds were also proposing to close down stables and rafting businesses along the Yosemite waterways.

McClintock is a smart politician who knows the issues, knows what his constituents care about and can make it seem as if he’s as angry as they are. He takes lonely–his opponents say obstructionist–stands against the various agencies of the Department of the Interior. He “speaks truth to power,” as he told the folks in Mariposa. In the past, he didn’t have many electoral cares; the Democrats have never had much of a chance in either the old or new Fourth District. But now McClintock has to worry about Art Moore, who is also a Republican.

Moore, 36, is a razor-sharp recent combat veteran, an Army major returned to his hometown of Roseville, the most populous community in the Fourth District. He is a graduate of West Point who served tours in both Iraq and Kuwait. He is also, however, a stone-cold neophyte who hasn’t really been to political boot camp yet. He is, he says, “a conservative,” and he checks the appropriate boxes on most conservative issues, like Obamacare–but he also is “a bit more libertarian” than McClintock on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. Most important, though, is his style: he’s the opposite of McClintock’s lone gunslinger. “You’ve got to sit down and negotiate with those you don’t agree with,” he says. “[McClintock] has a perfect conservative voting record, but what has he got done? He voted to shut down the federal government–to close Yosemite–which really hurt this district. I’m in favor of building coalitions and seeing if we can make some progress on the issues.”

Moore admits that he would not have run under the old system. McClintock has the party base locked up and the power of incumbency. But if Moore can make it into the general election against McClintock, he may be able to access independent and moderate Democratic voters as well as his brand of conservative Republicans. “In the Jungle Primary, everybody has to run to the center,” says Fred Keeley, a former state rep from Santa Cruz who co-chaired the Voices of Reform project with Schnur, “because that’s where the votes are.”

McClintock claims not to be worried about Moore. He tells me that his “most substantial opponent” in the Fourth District is an Independent named Jeffrey Gerlach. It’s a lovely tactic to pretend that Moore doesn’t matter and a sign that uniprimary politics can get pretty interesting: a Republican opponent like Moore, who might appeal to moderates in November, when more people are paying attention, is McClintock’s worst nightmare in the Jungle.

Indeed, across the state in Silicon Valley, there has been an outbreak of electoral weirdness in the 17th Congressional District–which, in some ways, is a mirror image of the race in the Fourth: Mike Honda, a traditional labor liberal, is opposed by a more moderate Democratic newcomer named Ro Khanna. Khanna, 37, is an Indian American, an intellectual-property lawyer who worked in Barack Obama’s Commerce Department and has close ties to the President. He has also reportedly raised $3.7 million–far more than Honda–from Silicon Valley tech titans, who are just beginning to flex their political muscles (much as Hollywood did during the Vietnam War). Khanna is an impressive candidate, fluent on every issue and, in some cases, downright courageous: he is willing to challenge the public-employee unions–all of which support Honda–on issues like accountability and pension reform. Most of the major newspapers in the district have endorsed Khanna.

But the 17th District also has a semiplausible third candidate–a Republican named Dr. Vanila Singh, 43, a young and attractive professor of anesthesiology at Stanford University Medical School. Singh is a neophyte and can seem foggy on the issues, but she has positioned herself cleverly–she’s another social liberal, and she’s willing to negotiate with the Democrats about the Affordable Care Act. In fact, since about 25% of the district votes Republican, she might pose a credible primary threat to Khanna, the Democratic moderate. And so, after she declared her candidacy, there was a sudden flowering of old-style urban ward politics in and around San Jose. Suddenly, Singh had two Republican challengers–one named, confusingly enough, Vanish Singh Rathore (who was eliminated from the ballot because the signatures on his petitions were not remotely plausible); the other, Joel Vanlandingham, offered petitions that included signatures from Khanna supporters.

Khanna denies any hand in this. “I would have to be pretty stupid to get involved in that sort of thing,” he says. “I mean, Vanlandingham was really tough on me in the League of Women Voters debate.”

There are some who say that the Jungle will cause of lot of rumbling but no real results. “The rubber meets the road when the moderates go to Congress,” says Samuel Popkin of the University of California at San Diego. “The evidence suggests they stick with the party line.” The evidence is skimpy, though–just the 2012 election, when the Jungle was brand-new and most politicians weren’t completely aware of its possibilities yet. Some felt the traditional pull of partisan loyalty and chose not to challenge their party’s stalwarts.

Khanna was one such in 2012, when he chose not to challenge the venerable Representative Pete Stark, a devoted liberal and the only admitted atheist in the House. Another young Democrat, Eric Swalwell, made that race and beat Stark, which sent a signal throughout the state that the Jungle was open for business: you could challenge incumbents of your own party and maybe even win.

Honda seems a bit mystified by all that has happened. His is a classic American story. He spent part of his youth imprisoned in a Japanese-American internment camp in Colorado during World War II. He was inspired, not embittered, by the experience. He became a teacher and then a school principal, then commenced a public life that culminated in seven terms in Congress. His campaign office is in a Service Employees International Union hall. He greets me wearing jeans and cowboy boots and a red, white and blue Democratic donkey tie.

He sees his career as many incumbents do: a list of local projects funded, of ideological battles fought–in his case, the relentless pursuit of social justice and civil rights. He remembers helping get a nanotechnology bill passed in 2003 at the behest of Silicon Valley, but now the techno-wizards have abandoned him in favor of Khanna. “I’m an orchardist,” he says. “That nanotechnology bill planted the seeds for the trees that are bearing the fruit in Silicon Valley now. But I guess no one remembers those who plant the trees.”

It is hard not to have sympathy for Honda, but the political orchard he and his generation planted was poisoned over time by partisanship and paralysis, and now it has been replaced by a jungle. We’ll see what sorts of glorious fruits and subtle poisons the Jungle brings forth.


Matt Miller’s Truth Campaign

I’ve hesitated writing about my friend Matt Miller’s Congressional campaign in California’s infamous 33rd District on the west side of Los Angeles because, well, he’s a longtime wonk-friend of mine. His candidacy is probably a longshot, although he has been endorsed by the LA Times. He’s an enlightened amateur, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget and a truly creative thinker when it comes to public policy.

And he’s worth your attention because he’s running that rarest of things: a truth campaign. He’s telling the truth about what he believes, no matter how unpopular it is–or worse, in his case: Complicated. He doesn’t fudge his position on the issues–in part because his positions have been elaborated in several (readable) policy books. And in more than a few cases, his proposals are unique, or nearly so. Certainly, they’re not the sort of positions normal politicians are willing to take.

Take Miller’s reaction to today’s report that climate change is already have a profound effect on our weather. He simply went to his library of policy papers and proposed the following: a carbon tax and dividend system. What’s that? Well, there’s been endless discussion about how to discourge people from using carbon-powered energy (at least, among those Democrats and Republicans who are not climate-change deniers). There have been all sorts of complicated things proposed, like a cap and trade system–which I will not explain here–in order to hoodwink the public into thinking they’re not actually being taxed for the carbon they consume.

Miller has taken the simplest possible route. He taxes carbon directly at the source, a gradually increasing system that eventually amounts, after ten years, to $1 per gallon of gas. But he returns the proceeds–the dividend–right back to the public in a monthly check. There have been endless discussions about this idea in wonkdom. Most involve the question of whether to give all the money back to the taxpayers. There are those who want to take some of the proceeds and use them to fund alternate energy sources. Miller takes a more direct free-enterprise route: he assumes that people will find ways to reduce their carbon usage and pocket (or spend) a nice chunk of their monthly dividend checks.

It probably doesn’t take much courage to propose an energy tax on the west side of Los Angeles (although the usual political route for Democrats is to acknowledge we have to do “something” about climate change and not get more complicated than that). In fact, Miller probably has opponents who want a more direct government hand when it comes to climate change–let the government, rather than the market, decide which new energy sources to support. (I should note that Miller’s idea has a quietly progressive aspect to it: poor people who don’t own cars, who–as Jesse Jackson once said–“take the early bus” would be getting the same monthly dividend as Hummer-drivers.)

The point is, Miller’s policies are not off-the-shelf, cookie-cutter plans selected by his policy staff. They are hand-made, fully realized. You may disagree with some of them. On some issues, like education, they fly in the face of your standard Democratic interest groups. But, having been through dozens of long policy discussions with Matt over the past 20 years, I can say this: his policies are what he actually believes.


American Legion Agrees: Shinseki Should Go

More than a year ago, I wrote a column calling for Retired 4-star General Eric Raymond Shinseki to step aside as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, given the utter mess in that department. James Koutz, the American Legion Commander at the time, led a round of criticism from traditional veterans groups:

“While we do not deny that problems and inefficiencies exist within VA and VA-related activities and programs, placing the blame on Secretary Shinseki is wholly unwarranted and disingenuous.”

Today, the Legion changed course:

“It’s a story of poor oversight and failed leadership,” said American Legion Cmdr. Daniel Dellinger, who also hailed the former Army chief of staff’s decorated military record. “This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.”

And it’s true, Shinseki is an extremely decent and admirable man with a heroic record of military service. But he hasn’t done very well adapting the VA to the information age or to the generation of troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The last straw for the Legion, apparently, was a report that 40 veterans had died waiting for doctor’s apointments while the VA’s Phoenix office lied about wait times–and even had a secret list of veterans waiting as much as 200 days.

It’s nice to have the Legion add to the pressure for genuine reform in VA. I thought they were being “disingenuous” last year. But–as I pointed out in the column–the problem doesn’t end with Shinseki. It extends to the top of the totem pole, to the White House where President Obama, who cares deeply about this generation of veterans–supporting their organizations and quietly visiting the wounded in hospital–just can’t seem to figure out how to reform a system that is a national embarrassment. One 4-star general told me that there are 2 VAs–an inner circle of excellent medical professionals who are devoted to their patients, surrounded by a vast mushy doughnut of public employees who have no incentive to work very hard. The stories of incompetence and insensitivity are endless. The VA may well be the worst bureaucracy in Washington.

True reform would require a tiny revolution. The President could ask the Congress to allow him a two-year experiment in lifting the civil service laws that make it practically impossible to fire those clogging the mushy doughnut. That’s a big fight, but a worthy one: There is no creative destruction in government, no accountability–and without accountability, efficiency is nearly impossible. And it might not be a bad thing if the President tried something to change the rather torpid and depressing conversation going on in Washington right now.


Correction: the initial version of this article didn’t include General Shinseki’s first name.



Jewish Organization Acts in an Un-Jewish Fashion

Over 5000 years of history, we Jews have demonstrated a remarkable talent for survival, the promulgation of morality and justice, tolerance of others, terrible cuisine and an almost protozoan genius for subdividing ourselves. Thus, there is an organization that is actually called the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations. It has 51 members, some of whom are not all that major–but ok, a diversity of voices, that’s good!

Except not this week. The Conference of Presidents Etc Etc…rejected the attempt of a liberal group called J Street to become a member. The vote was close, but despicable. Indeed, you might wonder what sort of barbarities did J Street commit to be denied entry? After all, there are antique socialist organizations like the Workman’s Circle in the COPOMJAO; there are organizations representing peaceniks, like Americans for Peace Now. J Street must be really extreme, right? Actually, no. It pretty much supports the Obama Administration line on a Middle East peace settlement and nuclear negotiations with Iran. Thereby, it represents a majority of American Jews, who voted for Obama in droves twice.

J Street does not, however, represent the views of AIPAC–the American Israel Public Affairs Committee–the heart of the so-called Israel Lobby. And AIPAC represents the views of Benjamin Netanyahu. It opposes United States foreign policy on the West Bank and the Iran negotiations–not always frontally, but reliably. COPOMJAO has traditionally followed a Likudnik line as well…and it appears that Jewish Neo-Conservatives have gotten a bit touchy about the possibility that a new group like J Street, which actually represents the views of a significant number of Jews, will grow into a real rival to the current out-of-touch Jewish establishment.

This is a decidedly un-Jewish development. Where I come from–the outer boroughs of New York City–Jews were known for, and entertained ourselves by, arguing about everything. Nothing was ever off the table. But I’ve noticed a tendency of the neo-conservative Jews to denigrate those who disagree with their extreme right-wing positions. They bully. They refuse to engage in a serious debate. They have a cult-like devotion to the party line. They call groups like J Street “anti-Israel,” when it’s possible, perhaps even probable, that COPOMJAO’s hard line will compromise Israel’s ability to thrive in the future.

The CPOMJAO rejection will work well for J Street. It will be “good” publicity, especially among those Jews who have been dismayed by those who claim to Judaism’s official leaders in America. COPOMJAO, meanwhile, seems as silly as its name. It needs reform, including a new identity: I would suggest The Jew Crew as a replacement, but that would imply a lack of self-righteousness and openness to diverse opinions that COPOMJAO doesn’t seem to have.

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