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HillaryCare, Past and Present

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A further point about all the press Hillary Clinton's health plan has received in the last three weeks: a lot of ink has been spilled on the specter of the 1993 debacle. Would Hillary repeat the mistakes that sunk her first effort? At first, the Entrepreneurial Agenda wanted to stay clear of that debate; it struck EA as superficial politics. But we've had a change of heart -- what politics isn't superficial? Besides, it raises a fair point: having a plan is one thing, but having the political skills to see it enacted is quite another.

In a long and deeply reported story that ran last November, the Atlantic's Josh Green investigated Clinton's work in the Senate and found that she had learned quite a bit from that early failure. (Clear your calendar and read the piece here.) Most of us saw only the anxious Harry and Louise fret about it on TV, but Green reports how in Washington another drama quietly unfolded. Mindful of the opposition universal heath care has generated over the years, the Clintons began their initiative by shutting everybody out -- industry lobbyists, sure, but also cabinet secretaries, and, most important, legislators. As Green recounted it, the White House then tried to ram its radical plan through Congress by attaching it to a budget bill, angering a key senator, Robert Byrd of West Virginia -- a Democrat, no less. When that failed, Hillary Clinton was unable to make the compromises necessary to get an alternative through Capitol Hill. "She was focusing on the delivery of health care," a close friend recounted to Green. "She was utterly and totally tone-deaf to the politics."

What a difference 13 years makes. Green described how since becoming a Senator, Clinton has carefully cultivated her colleagues. ("It's a lot like pledging a fraternity: you make a big show of deference by abasing yourself before your elders.") She went so far as to schedule a meeting with Byrd. "Clinton asked Byrd for advice on being a good senator, and got a primer on how to comport herself," Green reported. That sort of groundwork appeared in the build-up to the announcement a couple weeks ago. For months, the Wall Street Journal reported, Clinton met one-on-one with leaders across the corporate world, including the insurance industry. She even briefed the often-hostile NFIB before briefing the public.

By the end of his story, Green "wondered if Clinton learned the lesson of the health-care disaster too well, whether she has so embraced caution and compromise that she can no longer judge what merits taking political risks....Today Clinton offers no big ideas, no crusading causes -- by her own tacit admission, no evidence of bravery in the service of a larger ideal." It's a fair charge (and one that could have probably been leveled at her husband, too), but maybe a touch dated when it comes to health care. Her proposal -- like Richardson's, and Edward's, and Obama's -- is a big idea, and should she get elected, the habits Clinton acquired in the Senate could go a long way toward seeing it become law.

Last updated: Oct 8, 2007




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