The Politics of Health Care
Jude Wanniski
July 25, 1994


On Friday, out of a black box, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell promises to produce a health care bill. Because he will be able to draw upon all the ideas that have emerged from several Democratic plans that have surfaced from various House and Senate congressional committees, what he pulls out of the box can look like anything or unlike anything we can now imagine. It seems preposterous, but Mitchell, House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, and the President and Hillary Clinton appear intent on selling this Brand X to the House of Representatives in the remaining two weeks prior to the August 12 recess -- and to keep the Senate in session until it approves something that enables Mitchell and Gephardt to go to a House-Senate conference in order to produce yet another plan out of yet another black box. They believe they can do this even as the entire country observes the President and First Lady in open disagreement over issues in legislation that would be unpopular if either of them won the argument. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the chief salesperson for health care reform in Congress, over the weekend delivered a furious attack on the Congress for standing in her way. 

The political argument behind this strategy is that the Democrats will be savaged in the mid-term elections unless they can produce a credible health-care plan. This argument is coming from the President's pollster, Stan Greenberg, and the political team of Jim Carville and Paul Begala. It rests on the cynical assumption that the American electorate will be happy even if it gets Brand X health care, because more than anything else, the voters want something. The crazy thing that enables George Mitchell to believe he might be successful is that there are a gaggle of Republicans in the House and Senate who actually believe the Republicans will suffer in November if a health care bill is not passed. In the Senate, a significant number have advised the leadership that they could not support a filibuster to kill health-care legislation, no matter how grotesque the monster that comes out of the box. This is based on the same cynical assumption, that the voters are not smart enough to know bad legislation from good.

My belief is that the country is best served by no legislation passing this autumn, and if the Democrats wish to make something of GOP obstructionism in the October campaign, they will only contribute to the size of the GOP victory. At present, polls are suggesting Republicans will gain about 30 seats in the House. If no legislation passes, and the voters wish to defend themselves against a Clinton health-care monster in 1995, they will give the GOP the 40 seats they need for House control. In any case, the voters will wish to make Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole the Majority Leader come January, as he predicted Saturday, which would put the GOP in charge of writing health-care legislation next year. 

The national mood favors the obstruction of President Clinton. My advice to Republican Senators who are up for re-election this year and worry about joining a GOP filibuster, if one becomes necessary, they will be severely punished at the polls if they are not seen as standing at Senator Dole's side. Dole, who was viewed by the White House early this year as a pushover on health care, is giving a good imitation of the Rock of Gibraltar. The only way GOP Senator Bill Roth of Delaware can lose his seat in November, for example, is if he is with the President when sides are being chosen for the final showdown. The widespread guessing is that a bipartisan substitute somehow will be fashioned to give the scaredy-cats in both parties a way out. If they pass wishy-washy legislation which they know President Clinton will veto, they will be able to face the voters and say they tried their best. A more likely scenario would suggest a bipartisan substitute that passes in the Senate, simply to give Mitchell something to take to a conference with the House. The Democrats could then present something satisfactory to the White House and Hillary and dare the GOP to filibuster. With that kind of spectacle, the midterm elections would be dominated by the angry opponents of black box socialized medicine. The GOP could pick up 50 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate. 

As the Democrats are driven to self-immolation, they are spinning out of intellectual control. It is as if they can't help themselves avoid destruction. While Bill Clinton came to Washington thinking of himself as the reincarnation of Franklin Roosevelt, who created the New Deal coalition that has dominated Democratic politics ever since, Clinton increasingly seems a parallel to Herbert Hoover, who presided over the end of 70 years of Republican dominance in Washington that began with Lincoln. 

Clinton began as Hoover finished, raising tax rates in a recession. Now, even on the free trade issue, which was part of the glue that held the New Deal together, the Clinton Administration is throwing in the towel. In order to keep congressional Democrats from bolting on health care, the White House is steadily watering down the GATT trade bill, turning it into a protectionist vehicle with a free-trade label. An editorial in this morning's Wall Street Journal, "Turning Trade Inside Out," inveighs against the Administration for handing the protectionists in the textile industry a victory in GATT's rules of origin for textiles. As we reported on July 14, in "GATT: Wolf in Sheep's Clothing," the steel industry has already gotten big breaks from the Clinton Commerce Department. China is being blackballed from GATT entry by the Administration on the specious grounds that it should be considered a developed nation. This is transparently a payoff to the AFL-CIO and environmentalists as a consolation prize for losing NAFTA -- in order to keep them happy on health care. This has infuriated Beijing and brought forth a condemnation of U.S. policy from the ASEAN nations. Meanwhile, the stranglehold on Haiti and a threat of military intervention is kept alive by the White House to keep the Black Caucus happy, for no other reason than that it needs the Caucus to sit still on health care when it comes time to kick them around again.

Against this depressing background, the President has the extra added attraction of Whitewater hearings, scheduled to begin Friday just as Senator Mitchell is supposed to be delivering Rosemary's Baby. His approval ratings in the polls, now below 40%, indicate he has fallen below the waterline of his 43% mandate in 1992. How can he possibly be helped by the Whitewater hearings in a way that can help him on health care? Can it get any worse?

Always in their dark hours, the Democrats could count on the Republicans doing something really stupid, like the Watergate burglary, or breaking a "read-my-lips" promise. At the moment, there really does not seem much chance of that happening. As the yelling and screaming and gnashing of teeth grow louder in the Democratic ranks, Senator Dole and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich are displaying an unusual calm -- watching the Democrats build the scaffold from which they will hang themselves. They are asking only that when the Democrats produce a health bill, this week or next, they permit a week or so for Congress to read the legislation before they are asked to begin voting on it. 

They need only say that they need the time to carefully study each sentence, paragraph, clause and provision -- to ascertain whether it increases the power of the individual, or the power of the state. That's where the winning politics of health care can be found.