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Obama Waits as VA Scandal Grows; Democrats Search for "Plan B"

Aired May 25, 2014 - 08:30   ET



JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: The Veterans health scandal becomes a campaign year flash point.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE SPEAKER: We've not just let them down. We've let them die.


KING: President Obama promises action but Democrats are losing confidence in a White House and a President they see as too slow to understand both policy and political headaches.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to see you know what the results of these reports are and there is going to be accountability.


KING: Plus the establishment strikes back. Crushing more Tea Party challenges and turning the focus to November.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: A vote for my opponent is a vote for Obamacare and a President who sold it to us on a mountain of lies.


KING: The midterm map overwhelmingly favors Republicans but Democrats do see a few chances to turn red states blue.


ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES (D), SENATORIAL CANDIDATE, KENTUCKY: Nothing about this election will change who is in the White House, but we can change who is in Washington, D.C.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: INSIDE POLITICS, the biggest stories sourced by the best reporters now.

Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King thanks for sharing your Sunday morning. I hope you're enjoying the Memorial Day weekend.

With us to share their reporting and their insights: Nia-Malika Henderson of "The Washington Post", Jonathan Martin of "The New York Times", CNN's Peter Hamby and Politico Maggie Haberman.

The Veterans health scandal is much more than just another broken 2008 promise.


OBAMA: I revere our soldiers and want to make sure that they are being treated with honor and respect.


KING: Fast forward six years and more than two dozen VA facilities now suspected of covering up delays in getting veterans urgent care in sometimes with deadly consequences.


OBAMA: We have to find out, first of all, what exactly happened.


KING: Now that moment that wait-and-see statement last Wednesday at the White House might well be remembered as the breaking point.


MCCONNELL: President Obama, the most powerful man in the free world always seems to be the last to know about what's going on in his own administration.


KING: Forget for a moment that Republican outrage. More and more Democrats in key 2014 races are calling for the President to get a spine, they say, and fire his Veterans Affairs Secretary and what more and more Democrats are saying privately is scathing, calling the President and his team detached, flat footed, even incompetent.

Maggie Haberman, that's what strikes me, what Democrats are saying privately in the wake of the problems, they see a president, doesn't want to take command, doesn't want to act fast, raising the competence questions. Some Democrats who believe in government saying this White House doesn't appear to have its hand on the lever.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, POLITICO: Yes and you've heard for a long time this White House doesn't appear to quite have its hand on the lever at various points. But this week really marked something, this past week marked a change where you saw Obama with that very sort of tepid press conference, he was sort of in, sort of not in with Shinseki. He had a meeting about foreign policy with senators who were expecting him to be there. He wasn't there. They filed out. One of them said that he thought it was the most bizarre meeting he had been in, in quite a while.

All of this adds up to somebody who just doesn't seem at all involved. This is problematic for Democrats who on the one hand can use individual instances to separate from their party. But the collective weight of this is problematic.

PETER HAMBY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: He also for -- since he's been in office, he's seemed temperamentally at odds with the impulses of Washington. People want there to be a head, they want to lop off someone head and fire him. Obama --the entire presidency has been calm deliberative his default gear is that sort of lawyerly demeanor. I want answers first, I'm not going to show you outrage.


HAMBY: And again, it might be the intellectually correct thing to do.


HAMBY: But in Washington it's very tough to do.

HABERMAN: Well and it depends also on what type of a situation you're talking about. The Shinseki issue, the VA scandal, really is emotional. It's a gut issue involves veterans, gets it involves health involves, caring for people. This is different then --

KING: And if you are going to speak, if you're the Commander-in- Chief and you've been under pressure for days, even a couple of weeks to speak and you finally do come out and speak, what your people are looking for is something that sounds decisive. I'm in charge I want to just play listen you know Eric Shinseki is still the Veterans Affairs Secretary, although if you listen to the President here, he stands by his man, but really only sort of.


OBAMA: I want to see what the results of these reports are and there is going to be accountability. I am going to make sure that there is accountability throughout the system after I get the full report. If he thinks he's led our veterans down, then I'm sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve.


KING: You can make somebody walk the plank. You can take the plank away to make clear that you stand by them. It seems right there that he sort of sent Eric Shinseki out to stand halfway down the plank. HENDERSON: That's right and Shinseki so far has said he doesn't want to get anywhere near this plank. He doesn't have any intention of resigning.

We are talking about this in terms of politics. I talked to several veterans who do want to see some action around this. And they know it has to come from the top and it's got to be swift. These are folks who have dealt with a lot of these problems for years and years and years. But they want to see something, too. And I think you're right. I mean these are -- these are real people, real consequences, will focus on military on Monday with Memorial Day. So, the optics of it not great for this White House.

MARTIN: Is there any part of this country that is seen as more politically sacred than wounded veterans, too? I think that they are so politically important, they're important to our civic culture for obvious reasons. But politically I think they're very important for this reason. There used to be a time in this country when it was part of the mainstream to serve in the military.

If you look at Congress after World War II, it was dominated by veterans. You now have a political class in this country that has not served in the U.S. military. And I think that is important here because these politicians don't know what that experience is like and so they're even more -- they're even more ginger when it comes to stuff. And that's why you see Democrats handling this thing the way they are. They gave Obama a lot of latitude when it came to Benghazi, when it came to other scandals. This is different because of the nature of what we're talking about.

KING: It's different and now you have a growing list of Democrats especially on high profile races saying well Shinseki should go because they're being asked about this in the campaign. They'll be asked about it this weekend when they're standing next to the American legion and next to the VFW guy.

Charlie Crist running for governor of Florida; Alison Grimes in a marquee senate race in Kentucky; Michelle Nunn, an important senate race in Georgia -- they're just at the top of list of Democrats who say, does the White House listen to that or does it say, as it often says, one of the things that's striking about this is that you call it to the White House and they say you don't get this, the media is hyperventilating. Democrats in Congress, they're just you know they're panicking.

PETER: No. The answer to that is absolutely no. I spent last week in Kentucky covering Mitch McConnell's race. This story penetrates everywhere. The VA is such a sprawling bureaucracy. It's not just hospitals. It's outpatient facilities, it's retirement homes. There are families involved. And also it's not just debts. There are many things you know that in health care -- you know, surgeries, whatever, routine health care things. This affects everybody. It penetrates everywhere in this country.

Just do a Google news search for VA hospitals right now. You see stories in Miami, in Portland, in Texas. This is everywhere.

KING: And it will affect the President in the sense that he's been trying to recover all year, trying to get his approval rating up. And Democrats are desperate for him to get that approval rating up. If you look at the polling now he's at 43 percent. In March he was at 43 percent, in January he was at 45 percent. Folks you can look that as a poll graph think if you walked into a hospital room and saw that on your chart. That's trouble.

The Democrats see this White House they go to the White House with complaints and they're told, we're on top of this, you just don't get it. Stop panicking. Trust us. You mentioned that senate meeting. They called some senators down to explain the President's foreign policy with the expectation the Commander-in-Chief would show up. His chief of staff was there, his national security advisor was there. Bob Corcoran who's is a Republican yes he's a Republican he leaves the meeting and he says one of the most bizarre I have attended.

What about that sort of parallel universe that you're all wrong, we're right?

HENDERSON: Yes I mean it goes back to what has been a primary criticism of this White House. And that is that it is insular. You know it's sort of a truism that people don't make new friends when they move into the White House. It's certainly been that way with this -- with this president. And you have had periods I think when the President has launch what we call like a (inaudible) -- will go out and talk to Republicans and invite them over to the White House.

But this particular incident, you know it didn't work that way. It only fueled this narrative --


KING: Is it the breaking point -- forgive me for one second, is it the breaking point when the competence question stopped the Bush administration, it was Katrina, it was doubts about -- not just about whether you supported the Iraq war, but the implementation, the management of the Iraq war.

And then in 2006 he tried to come back to Social Security. His own party wouldn't listen to him. He tried to come back to immigration his own party wouldn't listen to him. Does this president face that problem now that he's lost the Democrats, forget the Republicans, he lost them a long time ago.

HABERMAN: He not only faces that problem on its own he faces an adjacent problem which is Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is who the Democrats, who his party is looking toward, lawmakers are looking toward. They are now looking toward what they see as the future.


HABERMAN: This is absolutely and you saw that in this past week with what happened with the Benghazi committee where you had people around Hillary Clinton who are pushing Pelosi privately to make sure that there were Democrats sitting on that committee. It was as if Obama just didn't exist, they were pushing on ahead.

So yes I think he is in very dangerous territory.

KING: Thirty more months, 30 more months of the Obama presidency. But we'll watch how this one plays out.

Everybody sit tight. Up next, what's missing? And it's important when you look closely at the map of 2014 battlegrounds.

But first, in this week's installment of "Politicians sometimes say the darndest things," President Obama at the Baseball Hall of fame updating us on what you might call his 2009 wardrobe malfunction.


OBAMA: And at the hall's request I contributed selling on my own which was the jacket I wore when I threw out the first pitch of the 2009 all-star game. I hear that with the media attention about it, there was also interest in the jeans I wore that night. But Michelle retired those jeans quite a while back.



KING: Welcome back. The biggest surprise of this election year so far is that there are no big surprises. And that's exactly why the Republican establishment is so happy this Memorial Day weekend. Let's go to our puzzle I'll show you what I mean.

Remember, if you go back in 2010 when Republicans thought they could win a lot of senate seats, well this Tea Party guy name Ken Buck surprised them, beat the establishment candidate in Colorado lost in November losing a seat Republicans thought they could have, should have won.

In Delaware, a chance to win there, a blue state, but Christine O'Donnell, the Tea Party candidate wins the nomination, loses in November. That was off the table.

Fast forward to 2012, it happened in Missouri, Todd Akin beats the establishment candidate, says some things I won't repeat, loses in November. See you later, Mr. Akin. And in Indiana, Richard Lugar loses to primary Richard Murdock, Tea Party candidate, who then loses to the Democrat come November -- a seat the Republicans could have, should have kept.

So far this year, I've got nothing. No Tea Party challengers have knocked off big name incumbents or big name establishment candidates so far. This past week the establishment wins in Kentucky. Two establishment candidates make a run off in Georgia. The establishment wins in Oregon. The week before that we talked about an establishment win in North Carolina. So, so far, no surprises, no Tea Party challenges. So Peter Hamby, the question is this. If the Democrats were counting, and they were, on the Republicans to lose a few races early on by nominating people from the extreme in these primaries, what's Plan B for the Democrats?

HAMBY: Well look, they -- this is what Democrats say who won -- and we've all heard this all this week that these winning establishment candidates sort of co-opted the Tea Party brand, their policies and they can run against them on those things. I will say this, though. Republicans have been patting themselves on the back for putting up these electable candidates. They certainly are more electable than say Paul Brown in (inaudible) Greene, Georgia.

But there are always flawed candidates -- I know it's the trope of campaigns that candidates matter. But look at some of these guys. I mean like David Perdue in Georgia, first time candidate; Mitch McConnell, deeply unpopular; Monica Wehby in Oregon, you know, some skeletons have surfaced from her closet. Tom Cotton in Arkansas, you know, Harvard McKinsey guy, not running a great campaign down in Arkansas. I mean they -- (CROSSTALK)

HAMBY: I mean look, this applies to Democrats, too. But just because they had a good week doesn't mean that they're automatically going to coast to victory.

KING: You're dead right. Some candidates do matter on both ends -- the challengers and the incumbents. But Maggie, the Republicans look at it this way. We have 14 Democratic health seats that we're targeting. They haven't given any of them away this early.

They look at that as, you know, now the Democrats are going to have to fight everywhere as opposed to already say well, got that one, got that one. Take it off.

HABERMAN: Well, that's accurate. You know, Democrats are very concerned about what they're facing. And even though there are certain elements about the national mood that seem to be shifting in their Obamacare might be a little bit less of a hurdle. We're not really going to know though honestly on this one. I feel like this gets very under looked when there's the premium shift in the fall.

That's the next big thing that's coming on this. That's going to determine a lot of it. In the meantime, there is a bit of good news for them, but it is going to be a serious, serious battle. To Peter's point, the candidate quality issue does cut both ways. It cuts for the incumbents and it cuts for the challengers.

MARTIN: I think Peter raises an important point. I think I would just say that if you look at the candidates who are now nominated, they take their advice from the so-called adults of the Republican Party. They may make some sort of ill-advised statements at some point on the campaign trail. But they are going to have ads and a broader strategy that is directed by the high command in Washington, D.C. that is going to be very cautious and professional. HENDERSON: One of the issues that Democrats have, we talk about the high command and Republicans listening to the adults in the room -- unclear who the adult in the room is in terms of Democrats. Like what is the broad national strategy or national messaging that Democrats can have. I mean it looks like at some point we're going to see a real every man and woman for themselves.

MARTIN: Oh, yes. That's exactly right, that President Obama and Harry Reid are going to let Mark Begich be Mark Begich and that's a run against Obama to the point of openly defying and criticizing him in every TV appearance, go for it.


HENDERSON: Yes, which is what Alison Grimes is doing.

KING: You bring up Alison Grimes. Let's show folks her first ad of the general election. She comes out of the primary. She was expected to win. She's in that marquee race against the Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Listen to her here. Let's just say she doesn't like anybody in Washington.


GRIMES: It seems no matter how many elections we have, nothing gets better in Washington. It only gets worse. A lot of that is because of the people at the top in both political parties. And no matter who the president is, I won't answer to them. I'll only answer to you.


KING: She's running against a guy she calls Senator Gridlock. She just said, "Sorry Mr. President, if I win, don't bother calling." She's also taking a shot there at Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

MARTIN: Harry Reid -- there's money for her.

KING: Smart, right?

HABERMAN: Very smart. It's absolutely the right kind of ad specifically for that state and that race. But at the moment it really matches where things are. The Republican brand has a problem for 2016. The Democratic brand has a problem right now.

KING: Interesting, you mentioned the other Democrats -- I was struck by after we paid a lot of attention to this Pennsylvania House primary, Marjorie Margolies. They cast the vote in Congress, 1994. She's Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law now, the Clintons helped her out. She lost. She lost maybe because she wasn't a very good candidate I think. But the morning after NARAL, the abortion rights organization criticizes the Democrat who won. He won the election, you're going into November, could be a swing house district and the Democrats are criticizing their nominee. Listen to John Boehner here who says what conflict with the Tea Party.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I thought the election went well. We're going to have good candidates on the ballot. I'm not going to enter into this distinction between the Tea Party and Republicans because it's a distinction you're going to have a hard time finding.


KING: Now that statement is ludicrous. Here are a couple of distinctions. Boehner wants to pass immigration reform; Tea Party says no. Boehner would prefer that the debt ceiling go up without any drama; Tea Party says no. He wanted to strike a grand bargain with the President, maybe include some new revenues in tax reform; the Party says factually that's crazy.


KING: But from a discipline stand point -- again the Republicans are like --

HENDERSON: I mean for Democrats in some ways, that's a bit of a gift because they still want the Tea Party around to kick around in some ways and label Republicans as being captives of the Tea Party in some of these states. So I mean in that way it's good but I think --


MARTIN: Do you know what happened in the minutes -- literally the minutes after the campaign was called for Mitch McConnell on Tuesday night, everybody endorsed him. All the conservatives issued press releases. Erick Erickson cut him a check, payments and everything, put it online. They all rallied around him. If you talk to Republicans, they think there's this sense in the party that they can smell 51 states. They see the majority and they really want to get it this time around. That really manifested itself Tuesday night. There were no sore losers Tuesday night.

HAMBY: If you talk to grassroots conservatives, too like if you go to some district conventions or Lincoln Day (ph) dinners electability is never really something primary voters talk about. But you do -- you are starting to hear a little bit organically from grassroots folks that they do want to win. That's starting to come up a little. It might take another cycle but it's up and coming.

KING: Everybody hang tight. Tomorrow's news today is next as our reporters get you out ahead of the big political stories just around the corner.


KING: Time now, as we do every Sunday, to ask our great reporters to share something from their notebooks so that you can get out ahead of the curve when it comes to the big political news. Nia- Malika Henderson, you're first. HENDERSON: Democrats down in Texas, of course, there's a primary on Tuesday, worried about a woman named Kesha Rogers who is battling for the Democratic primary, a nod in the U.S. Senate race there. She's a LaRouchian. She wants to see Obama impeached. She's often seen with posters of Obama with a Hitler mustache. They are worried that she is really disrupting their attempts to really rebrand and rebuild the Democratic Party in Texas. They don't think she'll win, but they're worried that she might do well in that primary.

KING: That would be a different kind of Democrat.


KING: We'll watch that one, too. LaRouchian --


KING: Long ago I covered the trial in Boston but we won't digress. Jonathan.

MARTING: Staying in the Lone Star State, there is a runoff this Tuesday. 91-year-old Ralph Hall, longtime congressman from north Texas is locked in a run off because he did not get 50 percent of the vote in the March primaries. Democrats -- I'm sorry -- Republicans in both Texas and D.C. that I talked to are worried that he's not going to win. (inaudible) has played there in the mail -- other conservative groups have played there as well. Because of his advanced age, it's not a pure ideological victory if the right was to win here, you can be assure given the recent record that they will trumpet any victory that they get.

KING: Peter.

HAMBY: This is something flying a little bit under the radar in the invisible primary but this Friday night, Chris Christie is going to Nashville, Tennessee to speak at the Tennessee Republican Party's annual Statesmen's Dinner, apparently selling tickets like hotcakes -- one of the biggest events they've had.

This is important for a couple reasons. One, Nashville is a huge Republican donor hub outside of Texas and New York, it's a big money place because of not just country music, it's a big Christian publishing industry in healthcare. There's a lot of Republican money there.

But too, this is Christie's first trip to the south since winning re-election, since sort of laying groundwork for a presidential bid. So it will sort of be an interesting place for him to test his message. I'm going to be taking a look at that on Friday.

KING: Did you ever notice, Peter mentions meals a lot.

HAMBY: Hungry.

HABERMAN: Not a bad thing on Memorial Day weekend. The race to watch that is going to be coming on June 3rd is not only what happens in Mississippi, it's going to be what happens in Iowa. Who wins there -- it's a very contested Republican primary. Both sides are going to come out of the gate blasting. You're going to have Democrats trying to define who they believe will and some of them hope will be the nominee on the Republican side Joni Ernst. You're going to have Republicans who are well aware that it is going to be difficult for Braley, the Democrat, to run against a woman. That is a very, very important contest to keep an eye on.

KING: We'll keep an eye on that one. And Peter mentioned the contest I want to close with a bit earlier. Pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby, she won the Oregon Republican Senate primary despite last minute late campaign stories about her allegedly stalking two former boyfriends after breaking up with them. The man vote say water under the bridge -- happened a long time ago, forget about it, hard feelings are over. But the Republicans blame this on Democratic smear attacks.

However, I am told that the National Republican Senatorial Committee decided to send out communication gurus just because they're a tad worried that the 80s attacks could hurt but more worried that Wehby and her campaign seem not ready for what will now be a top-tier senate race. So some communications help sent out to Oregon. She's running against the Democratic incumbent Jeff Merkley.

That's it for INSIDE POLITICS, thanks again for sharing your Sunday morning, especially on this very special weekend when we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms that allowed these feisty political debates.

We'll see you soon. "STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley, starts right now.

CROWLEY: Young, disaffected and angry --