For Republicans, the politics of the VA scandal were pretty straightforward. All GOP officials had to do was express outrage – an emotion that spanned the partisan and ideological spectrum – and demand that the White House improve the system through which veterans receive care.
But Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, apparently couldn’t leave well enough alone.
The conservative Republican, who never served a day in the military, decided it’d be a good idea to start condemning veterans’ groups that had not yet called for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. In an “open letter,” Burr argued that leading veterans’ organizations are less interested in helping those who served and “more interested in defending the status quo within V.A., protecting their relationships within the agency, and securing their access to the secretary and his inner circle.”
It’s hard to know what Burr was thinking. Perhaps the senator assumed he could pressure the veterans’ groups, bullying them into calling for Gen. Shinseki’s ouster. But if that was the Republican’s strategy, it became clear over the weekend that Burr’s gambit did not go according to plan.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans and the Paralyzed Veterans of America hit back hard. […]The responses were unusually personal. Bill Lawson, the national president of the paralyzed veterans group, and Homer S. Townsend Jr., the executive director, criticized Mr. Burr for supporting the filibuster of the veterans bill in February, and said, “You clearly represent the worst of politics in this country.”William A. Thien, the commander in chief of the V.F.W., and John E. Hamilton, the adjutant general, pointed to a staff with more than 47 combat deployments in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan and four Purple Hearts, 16 Air Medals, Bronze Stars and other honors.
Responding to Burr’s attacks on its motives, the VFW added, “Senator, this is clearly one of the most dishonorable and grossly inappropriate acts that we’ve witnessed in more than forty years of involvement with the veteran community and breaches the standards of the United States Senate. Your allegations are ugly and mean-spirited in every sense of the words and are profoundly wrong, both logically and morally. Quite frankly Senator, you should be ashamed.”
One of the more striking aspects of Burr’s offensive is that it was entirely unprovoked. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans, and the Paralyzed Veterans of America have expressed ample criticism of the VA scandal, but because they hadn’t called for the resignation from Shinseki – himself a retired four-star general – the North Carolina Republican decided he was justified in publicly questioning their commitment to veterans’ issues.
And Burr did this, for reasons that make sense only to him, on Memorial Day weekend.
Look, I don’t imagine Republican senators are looking for my guidance, but here’s a tip: if you never served a day in the military and you recently filibustered a bill to expand VA health care access, tuition assistance, and job training, maybe you shouldn’t question the motivations of those who’ve devoted their careers to looking out of veterans.
Just throwing that out there.
As for Burr, instead of walking back his shots at the veterans’ groups and recognizing the fact that he went too far, the senator told the New York Times yesterday, “Clearly I hit a nerve. I think they’ve shown more outrage toward my open letter than outrage toward the current crisis at the V.A.”
In other words, the North Carolina Republican has decided he was right all along. We’ll see what happens, but I have a hunch he’s picking a fight against some men and women who don’t back down easily.