The Health-Care Wimps

Obama may be impervious to the demons of 1994, but his party is still haunted by the failure of Hillarycare. Eric Alterman on why the Democrats need conquer their fear to win this health-care battle.

What is the problem with the Democrats? Why, with a commanding majority in the House and a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate, are they unable to make good on the Obama administration’s central political priority: a new, universal health-care system for the nation, something Democrats have been trying and failing to pass since Harry Truman proposed one in 1948?

Well, any question that begins with the phrase “What’s wrong with the Democrats…” tends to have multiple and overlapping responses. But in this case, most of them can be summed up in a single word: “fear.” Democrats fear 1994, when popular discontent with the Clinton administration, symbolized by “Hillarycare,” led to catastrophe in the midterm elections. Those who lost their seats were almost all among the most vulnerable Democrats from red or purple states—of the kind who managed to squeak out victories in 2008. Hence the Republican focus in their attacks on the districts of moderate Democrats.

Obama is in a similar position to that of Bill Clinton in 1993. That’s why Kristol’s attempting to lead Congress on a journey to the past—along with the entire Republican Party.

And if Demo-fraidy cats needed any help in recollecting the moment, Republican strategist William Kristol—he just plays a pundit on TV (and The Washington Post editorial page)—was kind enough to begin the week by providing a blast from the past.

Writing on the Web site of his Weekly Standard magazine, Kristol informed his troops: “My advice, for what it’s worth: Resist the temptation. This is no time to pull punches. Go for the kill.”

The argument was nearly a perfect reprise of Kristol’s infamous strategy memo, written in 1993, to House Republicans who were considering cooperating with Democrats on Hillarycare. Together with a particularly nefarious article by Elizabeth McCaughey in The New Republic, Kristol’s memo was probably the single most influential document in ensuring the failure not only of President Clinton’s health-care plan but of his first two years in office.

Having made health care the central priority of his first year, Barack Obama is in a similar position to that of Bill Clinton in 1993. That’s why Kristol's attempting to lead Congress on a journey to the past—along with the entire Republican Party. Senator Jim DeMint explained in a conference call Friday with a right-wing audience: “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

He may be right. Bill Clinton, the progressive who ran for president on “putting people first,” never recovered from his health-care defeat. And both the president and the party that emerged from that thumping were far more cautious, conservative beasts than the ones that went in. Thing is, for much of the period, Democrats never realized that they were even in a fight; or rather they could not agree on the enemy. Clinton, like Obama, took in friendly fire from both the left and right.

Having allowed both houses to draft their own legislation—in direct contrast to the Clinton take-it-or-leave-it position—Obama is left with little in the way of control over the final product. What’s more, he cannot discipline the moderates and conservatives in his administration who fear the wrath of Republican attacks far more than any threats from within their own party. (As a rule, conservative Republicans run primary challengers against ideological apostates, while liberal Democrats rarely do—Joe Lieberman excepted.) They are concerned not only by the expense of the plan, and by the likelihood that the Republicans—together with a pliant media—will portray it as a tax hike, but also by the fact that its costs are likely to kick in immediately but its benefits may not be apparent for years.

But one major difference between this fight and the last one is that for all his Kumbaya-Rodney King “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?” rhetoric, Obama knows he’s in a fight he can’t afford to lose. On a Monday conference call with partisan bloggers, he responded to DeMint’s (and Kristol’s) comments by accusing Republicans of looking to “deliberately…delay this process because they know the longer the special interests have to run negative ads or lobby members of Congress, the more difficult it becomes to get this done…I know the blogs are best at debunking myths that can slip through a lot of the traditional media outlets,” he said. “And that is why you are going to play such an important role in our success in the weeks to come.”

Before anyone embraces the 1994 paradigm too closely, it behooves us to remember what a different Republican Party Clinton was facing then, compared with today’s leaderless, headless body. That was a party on the ascendancy with fresh leadership; this is party of Sarah Palin and Michael Steele.

What’s more, as Gary Jacobson writes, it is a mistake to tie the Democrats’ 1994 debacle too closely to the failure of their health-care plans. Rather, as in 1992, it was “the economy, stupid.” Back then, he explains, “79 percent of the voters in the national exit poll thought the economy was in bad shape, and 62 percent of them voted for a Democrat for the House. In 1994, 75 percent said they were no better off financially than they had been two years ago; 57 percent thought the economy was still in bad shape, and 62 percent of this group voted for the Republican.”

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Another major difference was money. Clinton succeeded in raising mounds of cash for his own re-election efforts, but the congressional cash committees went begging. Today, the DCCC has already doubled the NRCC in fundraising, with more on the way, as more of Obama’s time is freed up to help those who helped him.

It would be unfair and untrue to insist that conservative and moderate Democrats have nothing to fear but fear itself. 2010 could be a tough year for the Democrats if the economy does not improve. But they will not even have a life raft upon which to cling if this administration is perceived to have failed as thoroughly as Bill Clinton did in his first two years.

As Ben Franklin said of an earlier, far more demanding struggle, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Voters will stick with Democrats if they think they are winners, not whiners. For their own good, as well as the administration’s, it’s up to Obama to convince the party’s fence-waverers of that truism by whatever means necessary.

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.