Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. Today, we begin with American politics. Joe Biden has been president and the 117th Congress has been at work for six months. Even with COVID-19 vaccinations flowing in recent weeks, the country is still averaging around a half-million shots in arms daily. Even with the rocky reality of higher than average inflation, the economy has added jobs and unemployment has leveled, and real American families can point to real dollars in their bank accounts. Thanks to the American Rescue Plan.
It hasn't all been one long Juneteenth cookout for the Democrats. Senate Republicans successfully blocked federal action on voting rights and have stalled any action on Democrats' big infrastructure plan. Republicans in statehouses across the country have successfully charted a culturally conservative course for public policy that has dominated the national agenda. With just over 470 days until the midterm elections, Democrats and Republicans from dark edge of the Senate are starting to ramp up their re-election apparatus.
The question on everyone's mind, "And so how's this strategy working for us?" It's a question we'll be asking both parties over the next two weeks. This week, we start with the Democrats. Joining me now is Joel Payne, Democratic strategist, former aide to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, and a host of the podcast, Here Comes the Payne. Welcome back to The Takeaway, Joel.
Joel Payne: Thank you so much, Melissa.
Melissa: Also here, Maya King, politics reporter at POLITICO. Welcome back, Maya.
Maya King: Hi, Melissa. Thanks for having me.
Melissa: I feel like we need to get you a podcast with a snappy title like that.
Melissa: Joel, let me start with you. Where did the Biden administration hope to be at this point six months in and how close have they managed to get to that goal?
Joel: Melissa, it's a good question. I think the President and his team have to feel pretty good about where they are as you alluded to in your open. They passed the rescue plan. There's dollars in the pockets of millions of Americans. There are shots in arm. That was the thing that was on fire when they first took over in January. They had to address that and they did. Now comes the hard part. Now comes the part where really governing becomes a challenge. This infrastructure package is really challenging the President. It looks like they are rebooting their efforts to sell it publicly, really positioning it as a tax fairness measure.
I think something that was interesting to me was this week, Mitch McConnell hinted that Republicans really aren't planning on helping the President in any way whatsoever. Mitch McConnell talked about how if Democrats wanted to pass the debt limit increase, they were going to have to do it on their own. That essentially tells me if Republicans are unwilling to step in and help out there, there's probably nothing Republicans are really going to work with Democrats and the President on. I think that's the state of play as I look at it, 30,000 feet up.
Melissa: That's helpful. Maya, let me come to you on that final point that Joel just made about Republican strategy here. They were quite explicit. Senate Republicans were quite explicit during President Obama's first term that their goal was to ensure he did not win re-election. It must be said that congressional Democrats were pretty explicit about that same goal voted to President Trump.
I mean, after all, they did impeach him not once, but twice. I'm wondering, it hasn't quite sounded to me just in terms of public rhetoric as though Republicans in the Senate or in the House are currently seeing their main goal as massive resistance to President Biden. Now, I'm hearing from Joel that maybe that's precisely what it is.
Maya: Well, I think Republicans' endgame and everything that they do right now is to win elections. They're looking ahead to 2022 and making this calculus of what's going to play well with the bass and what's going to give us something to talk about. I think that, really, their strategy here is not only to hobble the White House's agenda but also to radicalize it in many ways. With all of this talk on the Hill about spending and how much is going to be spent on things like infrastructure, I mean, it's really given Republicans a perfect opening to say this is either too much money or it's not going towards the things that will actually help.
Then on the other side of that, of course, you have this heavy lean into culture war issues, wedge issues that, again, do play very well with the base and give Republicans really salient talking points to distract from the fact that on the Hill, there's a lot of gridlock and not too much is getting done on the right in the way of concrete policy, which, of course, also owes to the fact that they don't have majorities in the House.
All of these things play into the fact that they have all-- Republicans have been very clear about what they'd like to see happen in 2022. They've repeatedly said, especially Kevin McCarthy, they've expressed a lot of optimism about their chances of taking back the House and also the Senate. I think a lot of this just plays into that final endgame here of taking back control of Washington.
Melissa: Maya, I want to be sure I understand one of the points you made. You talked about radicalizing the President's agenda. Do you mean discursively? In other words, taking the policies as they already are and presenting them in a way that seems more radical, or do you mean actually pushing the President to take a more progressive, more leftist position, which might feel radical to particularly maybe to midterm voters?
Maya: Well, I think it's more the former really. I think about the stimulus bill that we saw passed almost immediately after Joe Biden took office. A lot of what you heard from Republicans there was that this is way too expensive. This is spending on things that don't actually matter in the end and that it's just a radical left agenda.
I think further down the ticket, though, you start to see more of what you mentioned, especially on the state level, with conversations that many state House Democrats are trying to have around policies that they want to pass a bit closer to home. It's really easy there, I think, for Republicans to say that this is a much more radical agenda. I think that scares voters, or at least plays better with base voters on both sides.
Melissa: Joel, it's interesting to think of an administration who right now has described its top two priorities as infrastructure and voting rights as having a radical agenda. Although it may not be where I stand ideologically, I get how one could think of, for example, expansion of affordable health care as more progressive or more radical, but building bridges and making people vote. How does that get strategically crafted for the Biden administration in a way that can feel sufficiently exciting to push back against the language of radicalization coming out of the right?
Joel: Well, Melissa, I think what we're hearing is the yin and yang of messaging, whereas Republicans might call it radical, I mean, the public opinion numbers just do not measure that out. They've called President Biden, either somewhat derisively or somewhat ironically, the 60% President because it seems like all the issues that he is pushing and that he's gotten behind have wide support in the country, at least three in five. You talked about voting rights, infrastructure, even pieces that failed earlier like the minimum wage increase that Democrats have tried to push for.
These items on the President's agenda are said to be progressive, but they're really just popular. Actually, I think that's an interesting subplot of these first six months is that President Biden has had the attitude of a deal-making moderate. He has presented himself as someone who can reach across the aisle and that's great, but he's really governed pretty progressively. I think that has vexed and frustrated a lot of Republicans that the President has been able to package this pretty progressive agenda in a way that's palatable to the American people.
Melissa: That's interesting because precisely what I was about to push you on here a little bit, Joel, is should he be pushing farther towards progressivism or towards left? I mean this not from a should he good, bad, but from a strategic sense. Is there a strategic benefit, particularly for House members going into their re-election, to be able to say, to point to things that are perhaps even more progressive than what the administration has already been able to accomplish?
Joel: To your point, the piece that the President has gotten pushed on regarding strategy most recently is voting rights. While he certainly is on the right side of that issue, I think a lot of activists and a lot of--
Melissa: With the left side of that issue as the case may be.
Joel: On the correct side of that issue is what I meant. That's right. Good correction there. A lot of activists and a lot of base Democrats do not feel like the President and his administration have the appropriate strategy to get it passed. They want him to get rid of the filibuster. They want him to get Joe Biden and Kyrsten Sinema on board with blowing it up in order to get voting rights passed to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act and the President has been yet to do that.
There's a thought that maybe the President can accomplish it through reconciliation. I think they're working with the parliamentarian to see if that could pass, if that's possible, because it has to relate to the budget. The President right now is being challenged by his base in a way that he has not been so far in his administration. I think he's been able to keep progressives and Democrats at bay and keep the infighting down. He had the six-month mark, where now that honeymoon is officially over. I think it'll be interesting to see how the President's team pivot.
Melissa: Maya, when Joel talks there about using a process of reconciliation, that's a term of art, quite specifically about how a set of congressional actions can happen, how bills become laws. I'm wondering if that language of reconciliation might also be descriptive of a strategic approach within the White House and within the broader administration.
Merrick Garland, our attorney general this week, made a little bit of news mostly by declining to make a little bit of news by saying that he didn't want to pursue some of the ways that the Department of Justice had been politicized under President Trump and saying, "I don't want the department's career people to think that a new group comes in and immediately applies a political lens." I'm wondering if that sort of, "We don't look back. We go forward. We're trying to reach across. We're doing the work of reconciliation." Is that both a winning strategy and is it simply, from the health of democracy perspective, the right strategy?
Maya: Well, I think that the White House has really tried and it's in many ways to employ some kind of an inside government strategy to try to push this through. One thing that I'll point out even to Joel's point is that President Biden, when he was running, had really used voting rights as one of his key issues, something that he said would be a priority of his administration.
He also said that he is a Senate guy, that he understands the inner workings of the Senate, and that he would use those connections that he's made as a former Senator to try to push through some of this legislation. I think that that's really what is complicating some of this because that's not quite crystallizing on voting rights in particular. Whether or not Democrats are able to use reconciliation to push it through, I'm not particularly optimistic that that will be what does it.
I think we've seen reporting even this week to suggest that Democrats are starting to say, "Well, we can organize around this. We can actually try to fight and use the strategy on the ground with grassroots activists to try to circumvent some of these laws." Even activists are saying that that's not enough either. I think that really more than anything else, it's going to be incumbent on this White House to really have these tough conversations with members of the base and try to figure out what the solutions are here beyond just talking points and fiery speeches around the filibusters in particular.
Melissa: Joel, do you want to weigh in on either filibuster or that reconciliation approach?
Joel: Really quickly. I think Maya's point about the President talking about registering voters and things of that nature, I've heard from a lot of activists I've talked to, "Hey, we did the hard work. We showed up in November. We risked our lives in the middle of a pandemic." I don't think a lot of the folks that are part of that president's volunteer base, I don't think they want to hear that. I think they're saying, "You've got the Senate, you've got the House, you've got the White House. It's time to act." That's the tension that we're looking at Washington right now.
Melissa: Maya, as we're looking down the card of the congressional Democrats, where are the places where folks are really asking for help on their strategy? I'm thinking here, for example, Lauren Underwood in Illinois, but other folks who were like, "Hey, we need some particular things to happen in Washington to ensure that we can get re-elected back home."
Maya: Well, I think to your earlier point, our earlier conversation, the place that I'll really be looking at in the next 18 months is Georgia. I think you see there the coming together of several different issues and many different top-line items that have dominated conversation, especially in Democratic circles. Of course, you have activists on the ground there who absolutely have been doing the work for the last several years now to register voters and turn out voters and that, of course, proved successful in flipping the state blue.
Now, they're saying, "We need that help again from Washington and from the White House to be able to hold our blue status and send, one, Raphael Warnock back to the Senate and perhaps put Stacey Abrams in the governor's mansion if it is indeed a rematch between her and Brian Kemp." I think the South, honestly, as a region is going to be a place just really to keep our eyes on because you're seeing several movements that are very similar to what we saw in Georgia take place in states like North Carolina, where a number of folks, including some progressives, are aiming to, if not get on the ballot, register more voters and turn out more rural voters.
I think Texas is another place where we see this, especially in the conversation around voting rights. That's really where a lot of my focus will be on and where I think we'll see some new storylines as they relate to 2022 and perhaps some trends that haven't really been noticed by us beltway talkers around politics in the past.
Melissa: Maya, you can't see me, but right now, I am doing a whole dance in my office as I'm on the radio with you here because, yes, the South, the South, the South, the South, and you said, of course, my state where I'm living right now in North Carolina, which is having some feelings about the fact that we were the great purple swing state and then Georgia took all the thunder and came forward.
Joel, the only way you can talk about the South, the South, the South, and turning these purple states blue in midterms or in a general election is Black voters, Latino voters, and other voters who-- it's not completely clear to me that this Biden administration is strategically connecting with right now. What are your thoughts?
Joel: I think that's a good point to bring up, Melissa, and particularly pursuant to the discussion we had a little bit earlier about voting rights. One thing that I've been looking at and I nerd out, so Melissa, you might appreciate this. If you really compared this midterm cycle, most midterm cycles, you expect the end party, the party in power to lose power. The last time that didn't happen was 2002.
President George W. Bush, it was right after 9/11. You had a national crisis of unprecedented measure and you really didn't see that sea change in politics. While, of course, we don't want to repeat the scenario that led to that moment, I think that is the scenario that the Biden White House is looking at. Do you have a president that is not polarizing, that does not stratify people and go into their corners?
Well, President Biden has tried to lead across the aisle and he's somebody that Democrats up and down the ballot, coast to coast, across the country can campaign with. That's something that I'm going to be looking for. Is Joe Biden going to remain the most popular Democrat in America? Right now, he is. We'll see if in 12 months, 15 months, 18 months, that's still the case. Look at that comparison between 2002 and 2022. I think that might be instructive as to what to expect in the next midterm cycle.
Melissa: It's a great point, this idea that part of what you have to do is not only turn out your own base, but hopefully not overly activate the other base. Don't be a symbol to be run against because you're not actually on the ticket. You don't want to create the good enemy that also creates a circumstance for the other party to really show up and vote against you.
I'm wondering the ways, Maya, that at the state level, Republicans have done an extremely good job at setting an agenda that doesn't really have anything at all to do with the DC beltway. This cultural discourse around critical race theory, around trans young people, things that just really are not being taken up in Congress, but they're using it to set state agendas.
Maya: Yes, absolutely. I think one place we see that, in particular, is in Virginia, which actually is having-- It is an election year in Virginia. They will elect their governor in November. You see Republicans, they're really, really playing up these topics that you mentioned like critical race theory, like trans students in sports and using bathrooms. These are the things that they believe will be able to swing an election, particularly in the very vote-rich Northern Virginia counties where public schools and public educations are some of the best in the country.
Virginia may be, in some ways, an outlier in that way. I think at the same time, what you are seeing there is a test run, especially for the right and figuring out how to leverage these wedge issues. If they are successful, even if that means they've been able to take back their majority in the statehouse or even send a Republican to the governor's mansion, which, looking at polling, it's really a toss-up right now. I think if they're able to make any inroads in any way, they'll be able to take the lessons learned there and apply them to similar states across the country where you see a lot of this rhetoric starting to play, especially in suburban counties.
Melissa: That language of suburbs. Let me come to you on that, Joel, because right now, again, if you're nerding out on data, everybody's talking about the suburbs. Any expectations there?
Joel: Well, I think both Democrats and Republicans understand that the suburbs are where it's at. I actually think something we won't have a chance to talk about here is we talk a lot about Joe Biden and Democrats, but really it's Republicans. Do they have a unified message against the President and can they get all of their candidates to speak with one voice and be disciplined in the era where Donald Trump is on one end of the Republican Party and you have a lot of establishment Republicans who want to move on on the other end? Can they untangle those wires? Again, that'll be something we'll have to keep an eye on over the next few weeks and months.
Melissa: It's the great question of, are all politics local or do you need a national strategy for local elections? All the good stuff. Joel Payne is a Democratic strategist, former aide to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, and host of the podcast Here Comes the Payne. Maya King is politics reporter at POLITICO. Thank you both.
Joel: Thank you.
Maya: Thanks, Melissa.
Melissa: Three things to know about older Americans. First, they are the Americans most likely to show up and vote. The senior crowd consistently puts up turnout rates hovering around 65%. Second, older Americans are more likely than younger folk to be reliable Republican voters. Data from the Pew Research Center show that a majority of Republican voters are over 50 and a full-quarter are over 65.
Finally, nearly 80% of those Americans over age 65 are fully vaccinated. Nearly 90% have had at least one dose. The takeaway, older Americans are reliable voters, Republican voters, and vaccinated voters. Maybe that's why there seems to be a discernible softening in the anti-vax views in conservative media. With me now to discuss is David Graham, staff writer at The Atlantic. David, welcome to The Takeaway.
David Graham: Thanks for having me.
Melissa: Talk to me about this shift that we're seeing right now in conservative media.
David: There's something very strange going on really just this week. Over the course of a few days, several prominent people came out and gave an endorsement of vaccines or talking about getting their own vaccine. We saw several Fox hosts, Steve Doocy, who's talked about this before but was reemphasizing it. Sean Hannity seemed to endorse vaccines. We saw Steve Scalise, the House minority whip, announced after months of holding out that he had gotten his vaccine. There's something going on this week and it's not totally clear why, but it's real.
Melissa: Do you think it's political, it's ideological, or that it's just a public health issue?
David: Well, I think there must be some of this that's connected to Delta. A lot of people are concerned about Delta. We see rising concern across the political spectrum. I think that's driving something-- Scalise cited that. Even so, the uniformity of the response on Fox, which also released a short PSA endorsing vaccines, almost suggests that there's some sort of worry that they need to be taking this more seriously. Some Republicans have been serious about vaccines for a long time, but it's this particular hive that is doing something different and I don't totally know why.
Melissa: What about the idea that we're seeing it in media, but it's also related-- Obviously, you started naming members of Congress there, for example, with Steve Scalise. I'm wondering about the fact that we're seeing them happen at the same time and they sense that one is causal. In other words, the conservative media is softening and, therefore, Republican politicians, or maybe that Republican politicians are softening and, therefore, conservative media.
David: If I had to guess, I would say probably it involves the media softening first. A lot of conservative politicians, I think, follow where the media goes and it limbs what they feel like they're comfortable doing. This is an ecosystem and there is a little bit of a feedback loop, so they tend to be connected.
Melissa: Does it make a difference when trusted leaders, whether media or Congress get vaccines, say it's okay to get vaccines? Do we have data about whether or not those kinds of signals actually make a difference in the willingness of individuals to get those vaccines?
David: Yes, we know that these kinds of trusted messengers are the best people to do it. Trusted messengers can be your doctor. They can be your pharmacist. They can be a political leader or media personality who you trust. How much this matters, I think, is a little bit up for debate. We'll have to wait and see because so many of these personalities and because so much of conservative media and Republican politicians have been spreading a skepticism, not always outright skepticism but sometimes just asking questions, sort of argument.
The question is whether at this point, it's too late or whether it will have much effect. Also, even if people go out when they hear this and get their vaccines this week or in the next week or two, it obviously takes a while for them to get vaccinated, which means there's a little bit of delay before we might see that dampening the effects of Delta spread.
Melissa: David Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic. David, thanks so much for coming on the show.
David: Thank you for having me.
Melissa: Okay, everyone, for the rest of this hour, we're going to be talking about our veterans who are returning home from the war in Afghanistan because the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will be complete as of August 31st. Coming home is not the end of combat for many of our servicemen and women. Many veterans of the war in Afghanistan will face physical, emotional, and financial battles for decades. To get some perspective on this, The Takeaway spoke to a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Marine who knows all too well what it's like to return home.
Tim Kudo: My name is Timothy Kudo. I am a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. I think the feelings that I've had since President Biden announced that the war was going to come to an end this year have been incredibly mixed. At first, there was a two-fold response. One was relief that this war that it has taken so many American and Afghan lives is finally coming to an end after so much senseless tragedy. On the other hand, given what I experienced over there, the men in my unit who died over there, there's a tremendous sense that everything that we did was in vain.
Melissa: Tim did his best to try to explain to us what he says is simply inexplicable.
Tim: When you return and you've killed people and you've seen men die, you've lost people under your command, you realize that for the rest of your life, you're never going to be the same.
Melissa: For Tim, it's the seemingly never-ending nature of America's war in Afghanistan that has been so deeply frustrating.
Tim: When I got back from Afghanistan, it was around 2011. Shortly thereafter, Osama bin Laden was killed. That created a huge mix of emotions, given that my impetus for joining and becoming interested in military was 9/11. I realized that the war that I had just come back from was still going on and was going to go on for quite a while. We hope that it would end then, but it didn't obviously. 10 years later, we're still fighting it.
Melissa: For those who serve, the cost of war cannot be calculated on a spreadsheet.
Tim: It's very difficult to convey that to someone. Your friends and family, they don't understand it. They'll never understand it. They expect you to be that person that you thought you would be able to be when you come back. When you're not, you have a choice to make of either withdrawing, disconnecting from everyone in your life, or frankly, lying to them. I think that what you end up doing, what most people end up doing is living in that lie a little bit.
It creates a distance that they're forced to live in for the rest of their lives. I think even now, it's not something that I could talk about or explain to anyone. Even if I did talk about it, they would never understand and that creates an incredibly difficult place to live your life. Unfortunately, that's just the way it is. That's what war costs for the person who fights in it.
Melissa: The reality for Tim is this.
Tim: There is a moral and spiritual damage that war does that cannot be dealt with by the government or by anyone else in your life.
Melissa: That was Tim Kudo, Marine veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We appreciate his service and we are so grateful for his words. We asked you out there, what words of things or encouragement you have for veterans returning from Afghanistan?
Mary: Hi, this is Mary from Philadelphia. Thank you for your courageous and persistent service in a thankless and perilous endeavor. Welcome home.
Leah: Hi, my name is Leah. I'm calling from Waynesburg, Ohio. For the veterans who are returning from Afghanistan, I hope that when you come back, you be the person that you imagined yourself fighting for, the person who seeks justice, the person who upholds constitutionality, and make your values known to the American people. You've been so politicized while you were deployed. Make sure that you're telling us the things that you really value.
Ronnie: Hi, I'm Ronnie from Northern Wisconsin. I want to say thank you for your personal and family sacrifices that were made while you were overseas. I hope that your service to this country and the support of our military provides for a better place for mankind, not only in Afghanistan but for the world.
Deborah: I'm Deborah from Brooklyn, New York. I could not possibly thank our veterans enough for their sacrifices in carrying out US policy in Afghanistan. I'm a Vietnam-era vet. I really understand, on a personal level, the sacrifices that not only the veterans, but their families make on behalf of a country that very often seems indifferent to them. Saying thank you for your service is not enough. We really have to do more.
Colleen: Hi, this is Colleen from Portland, Oregon. I would like to promise the veterans that we will try to do a better job of taking care of you than previous generations have. You deserve more and we're going to break the habit that America has of just leaving our veterans out to dry as soon as they're home. We love you and we're going to take care of you.
Melissa: As the final soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen arrive home from Afghanistan, our nation faces the question of how we can keep the promise that Colleen from Portland just expressed at her call. How can we do a better job for our veterans? With me now to discuss is Representative Colin Allred, the Democrat from Texas and a member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs and Foreign Affairs. Welcome back to The Takeaway.
Congressman Colin Allred: Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa: Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a veteran of the US Navy and still a member of the Reserves. Thank you for being here, Jeremy.
Jeremy Butler: Thank you, Melissa.
Melissa: Congressman, I want to start with you. You're a member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. What work are you doing right now to keep that promise that we heard to do a better job?
Congressman Allred: Well, it's a great sentiment and it's a promise that we do have to keep as a nation to the folks who we deployed to Afghanistan, who did complete their mission, which was to prevent any attacks on the homeland that we saw on 9/11. We know that our veterans who have been deployed to Afghanistan have faced prolong, toxic exposure of varying types.
I saw that myself when I was in Afghanistan. Just the air quality in Kabul itself is toxic. It's like breathing out of an exhaust pipe. The post-9/11 generation of our veterans have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. We are seeing much higher rates of suicide and mental health challenges associated with their service. In the Veterans' Affairs Committee, we've worked to try and address those specific things.
We just recently passed out of our committee, a package of bills that will recognize toxic exposure as a cost of war. Instead of placing the burden on the veteran to prove that their exposure and their injury related to that was caused by their service, we're going to create a presumption that that service led to that injury and to that disease if that's what they're dealing with.
We also passed at the end of the last congressional term, they had an act to provide more resources and focus within the VA health system to address mental health, to try and help us address the tragedy of us losing 17 veterans a day into suicide. There's more to do. I'm working here locally in my community. We just got a new VA hospital opened last year here in my community that worked very hard on having a hospital that had been basically abandoned, turned into a VA facility. We are certainly aware of the commitment. In our committee, we're going to do everything we can to try and meet it.
Melissa: Jeremy, according to the VA, this new generation of veterans, and this is a quote, "characterized by an increased number of reservists and National Guard members who served in combat zones, a higher proportion of women, and a different pattern of injuries such as multiple injuries from explosions than we're seeing among veterans of previous wars." Jeremy, can you help us to understand how those kinds of differences might mean that there are different needs post-combat for this new generation of veterans?
Jeremy: Absolutely. Also, before I start, just applaud and double down on everything that Representative Allred said. We work very closely with the House and Senate VA committees, especially on all those issues that he just discussed. Those are top priorities for my organization and all the members we represent. You're absolutely right. The post-9/11 conflicts have ushered in some new issues, but also resurfaced some of the existing issues that veterans have been dealing with for a long time in terms of things like the invisible wounds of war that we talked about as being some of the signature issues coming out of the post 9/11 conflicts.
We are talking about things that people can't necessarily see. That's like the traumatic brain injuries that come from being around so many concussive forces, not just things like IEDs, but also just repeated gunshots, explosive charges that are used in training and real-world missions by our forces. You've got that, but then that carries over to things like post-traumatic stress, untreated mental healthcare issues that can be caused by these issues.
Some of which we know have existed for our Vietnam-era veterans as well, for example. There's ultimately what we really need to be doing is just to make sure that the VA is ready and prepared to take care of all these things in addition to the fact that we have many more women serving in combat and on the frontlines today. We need to make sure that our VA facilities are able and ready to accept them, to care for them, and to give them the resources that they need.
Melissa: Congressman, is the VA ready? Are the resources there and available?
Congressman Allred: Well, we are certainly working hard to make the VA ready. I think that the VA health system has made tremendous strides in recent years trying to modernize some of the technology that they use. We're putting a lot of money into facilities. We did that in the American Rescue Plan and we'll continue to do that going forward. We are doing things like the Blue Water Sailors Act, which referenced the Vietnam-era veterans' face exposures to things like Agent Orange.
That was previously a difficult thing for them to try and get benefits and covered for. We've now removed that barrier. We're trying to do the same thing for our veterans of post-9/11 conflicts, but there's always more to do. We also have to recognize, the VA is an enormous bureaucracy. It's the largest integrated healthcare system in the country on the VA healthcare side. There's going to be a continuing effort to try and make it more efficient and to try and reduce wait times and to try and make sure that we are being more proactive.
As I'm sure anyone who has served will tell you, we have to do more also on the DoD side when our folks are transitioning out of service to make sure they're aware of what the benefits that are available to them are, because so many of our veterans don't know what benefits are available to them. We have to do more on the VA side to do that outreach, but we also have to capture while we have them still within DoD, make sure that we're educating them on their way out.
Melissa: Jeremy, I want to talk a little bit about politics. This is typically our politics show and we've been talking about politics earlier in the show, but it is dicey business to talk politics in the context of military service and our veterans. We don't want to turn Veterans Affairs into a question of a partisan political football, and yet we want vets to be registered to vote, to be speaking in their many diverse voices about what they want. How do we do politics in a reasonable, responsible, non-partisan way on behalf of veterans so that veterans can do it for themselves?
Jeremy: That's a great question. I appreciate. I'll say two things. One, I give a lot of credit to the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs committees of whichever that have already is on because it is one of the few places, I think, within Congress where you'll see real bipartisan working together to make sure that we're taking care of our veterans. It's part of the pleasure of my job is to get to work with folks on both sides of the aisle within the House and Senate VA committees because they really do see it that way.
They see it as a non-partisan issue where we really just need to take care of our veterans. It's not to say that partisan politics doesn't come into it. Certainly, when you start talking about individual veterans, everyone has a very different voice. You mentioned it and I think it's worth repeating because a lot of people, especially those that don't have a connection to the military veteran community, don't realize how diverse the military and, therefore, by extension, the veteran community is.
It really is a very diverse group of individuals from both sides of the aisle to include independence. I think understanding that and realizing that anytime you have someone that says they're doing X, Y, and Z for the veterans or they're doing this for the military or, "I'm taking this stance because of the military," they have to understand that it's a very broad and diverse community.
We need to let veterans speak for themselves because they often are. There's a lot of groups like mine and many others where we spend time on Capitol Hill doing things like encouraging members of Congress to connect with the veterans in their community, hear firsthand from them about the issues that they're facing because it really is a broad range of issues. We do encourage veterans to get out and vote in a non-partisan way.
Many veterans do have a wide range of feelings on different issues. I think what's most important is to let the veterans speak for themselves. Don't let members of Congress say that they're necessarily doing this for the veterans. Question them a little bit more to find out exactly what it is that they're doing and how their actions are going to directly support the veteran community.
Melissa: Thank you so much for that, Jeremy. Congressman, I want to come to you on that because some of these invisible needs, some of these things that end up as political footballs actually have disproportionate impact on veterans. I work with a diaper bank here in North Carolina. I have a passion for diapers. I was so shocked to learn that it is our military families and our veterans' families who have some of the highest diaper need, some of the greatest poverty rates in our state here in North Carolina.
I suppose I was a bit naive that those kinds of day-to-day needs are so intense for so many members of our military and of our veterans. How do we address questions of housing insecurity, poverty, and even things as simple as diaper need among our military families and veterans?
Congressman Allred: Well, it's such a good question. It's a real tragedy, one that has concerned me for some time and that we're working on our committee. It's going to take a whole of government approach because when you're talking about housing, of course, you need to have HUD involved. I used to actually work at HUD in the Obama administration. We worked very hard on trying to end veterans' homelessness.
About a third of all veterans say they had trouble paying their bills in the first few years after they leave their military service and almost 30% are receiving unemployment benefits. You're absolutely right that we have enormous economic challenges for our veterans. One of the things that we've worked hard to try and do, both here locally and nationally in our committee, is to make sure that employers understand how good of employees veterans are and how much of a benefit they can be to their companies.
The best thing to do, of course, for any person who wants to make their way is to make sure they can get into a good job, get into a good career, and feel like their needs are going to be met there. Corporate America has, I think, taken some steps in the right direction here, but we have a lot more work to do now to make sure that the talents, the skills that our veterans developed and have from their service, that those are appreciated as much as possible in civilian life and then, of course, that we fill the gaps on the backside in terms of when something happens, because one in five veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been reported with PTS.
We know that we're dealing with a very high percentage of folks who are struggling. We have to provide them with the wrap-around services that allow them to then thrive. We're certainly, of course, talking about our disabled vets who are suffering from injuries that they received over the course of their service. There's so much for us to do, but it has to be every single area really of our government to try and provide help.
Because I think part of the commitment to our veterans who you've put in harm's way has to be that when you're done, we're going to do everything we can as a nation to not only take care of your health but to take care of your chance to chase your version of the American dream for the rest of your time. I think that's an ongoing commitment. It's one that I certainly believe in and I think our committee in a bipartisan way, as Jeremy said, believes in. We know that there's a lot of work to do and there are some gaps that still have to be filled. I do think we've made some progress, but there's still much more to do.
Melissa: Jeremy, make this personal for me. For those of us who love and care about or are in relation with, our sisters and brothers and family members of those who have served, not all this can be done by the government, what can we do for those who are returning home?
Jeremy: Thank you for asking that because this is a great question and it is something that I wanted to add to what Representative Allred was saying. All of these changes need to take place. I think the biggest thing that everyone can do is to know how to help a veteran that's in need. A lot of our veterans might not be eligible for the VA for a variety of reasons, or frankly, they might not be comfortable anymore with using the VA.
They may have had a bad experience and they're just frustrated with the bureaucracy or whatever it might be. I think the biggest thing that everyone should know is where to send a veteran that's in need. There's a lot of resources out there. I will plug certainly just at a minimum IAVA's own Quick Reaction Force. We have a 24/7 hotline, 855-91-RAPID. You can also go to our website to get access. You'll get connected to a veteran counselor who can help any veteran, any era, any discharge status, and their family members to connect them to the resources that they need.
To the point that you were making earlier, three of the top five reasons veterans come to us for support are financially related. It might be housing or homelessness, unemployment, just emergency financial needs, but three of the top five are financially related. The other two are help accessing the VA and mental health problems. It really does reinforce the fact that these are some of the key issues that our veterans are facing. I think really, at the end of the day, the biggest thing that everyone can do is know where to turn to help veterans that are coming to them for help.
Melissa: Jeremy, will you give us that number one more time?
Jeremy: Absolutely. It's 855-91-RAPID or just go to iava.org and you can click on our Quick Reaction Force and they can help you 24/7, 365 days a year.
Melissa: Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America; and Representative Colin Allred, member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Thank you both for joining us.
Jeremy: Thank you.
Congressman Allred: Thanks for having me.
Melissa: That's all the politics we have for you all today. As always, we appreciate you tuning in. Before I head out, let me give a quick shout-out to the fantastic team that helps make all this radio possible. Our producers are Ethan Oberman, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Shanta Covington, and Katerina Barton. Our line producer is Jackie Martin. Our senior producer is Amber Hall. Vince Fairchild is our board operator. Jay Cowit is our director and sound designer and Meg Dalton is our digital editor this week. David Gebel is our executive assistant and Lee Hill is our fearless leader, the executive producer. Thanks so much for listening. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway.
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