In his 1994 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton waved his pen at the Democratic-controlled Congress and said he would veto any health-care-reform bill that did not “guarantee” the right to health insurance for every American. The threat worked. Congress didn’t send him a bill he would have to veto — or any reform bill at all, for that matter.
Then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, heading up her husband’s health-care task force, undoubtedly had a hand in that disastrous 1994 line in the sand. Now that she is running for president, she says she has learned her lesson. But has she? It hasn’t seemed so over the last two months on the campaign trail, as the take-no-prisoners rhetoric and finger-pointing ultimatums have returned with a vengeance.
The 1994 effort was a debacle of biblical proportions for the Democratic party. To win the presidency, everyone assumed Hillary Clinton would need to erase memories of her flawed leadership of that catastrophe. And doing so would mean showing voters she had the capacity for a different kind of leadership, one based on openness to the private sector, appreciation for the complexity of the task, and policy flexibility — not 1990’s style war-rooms and the promised destruction of opponents with differing views.
For a time last fall, it seemed as if Clinton understood she had an image problem that needed correcting. In announcing her new plan for health care, she stressed choice and pluralism. She claimed — falsely — that under her plan no one would be forced to drop the coverage they have today if they were happy with it. She suggested the plan is built on general principles, not detailed legislative particulars, and she pledged to work with Congress to formulate a workable compromise. She even endorsed Republican-sounding tax credits to bolster her claimed support of more private health insurance options.
Conservatives, of course, never believed for a minute that her overall goal had changed, and rightly so. Her plan is cleverly drawn, but a careful reading shows it would lead to a government takeover. Still, there was no denying a change in salesmanship.
The only problem was that the new, seemingly more open-minded Clinton didn’t work — politically, that is. She lost her frontrunner status for the Democratic presidential nomination and a slew of caucuses and primaries to Senator Barack Obama. It turns out that he, too, had a health-care plan he was touting, one that isn’t all that different from hers. And he had already cornered the market of voters interested in promises of consensus-building leadership.
In recent weeks, in a last-ditch attempt to draw clearer distinctions with Obama, Clinton has done what comes naturally to her, promising, that if elected, she will again lead a no-holds-barred campaign to defeat any and all opponents who stand in her way on health care. And, just like her husband did in 1994, she has defined the fight as a struggle between those who support “universal coverage” and those who don’t.
Of course, it is convenient, and not a coincidence, that Obama is on the wrong side in this fight, as Clinton describes it. He has refused to endorse the provision which Clinton argues is the non-negotiable foundation of Democratic health-care orthodoxy: mandatory enrollment by every American in government-approved health insurance. Clinton has virtually accused Obama of heresy for daring to defy a tenet of the universal-coverage church.