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Health Care 2010 and 1994, and the Political Lessons of History

Monday, 15 March 2010 19:38
Portrait, Robert Reich, 08/16/09. (photo: Perian Flaherty)

Portrait, Robert Reich, 08/16/09. (photo: Perian Flaherty)

ealth care reform is necessary, and House Democrats should vote for it because it's best for the nation.

They should also remember the political lessons of history. To paraphrase Mark Twain, history doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme. As the White House and the House Democratic leadership try to line up 216 votes to pass health care reform - and as Republicans, aided by the National Association of Manufacturers and abetted by fierce partisans like Newt Gingrich, try to kill it - I can't help thinking back to 1994 when the lineup was much the same.

I was serving in the Clinton administration at the time. In the first months of 1993 it looked as if Clinton's health care proposal would sail through Congress. But the process dragged on and by 1994 it bogged down. We knew health care was imperiled but none of us knew that failure to pass health care would doom much of the rest of Clinton's agenda and wrest control of Congress out of the hands of the Democrats. In retrospect, it's clear Republicans did know.

On February 5, 1994, the National Association of Manufacturers passed a resolution declaring its opposition to the Clinton plan. Not long after that, Michigan Democrat John Dingell, who was managing the health care bill for the House, approached the senior House Republican on the bill to seek a compromise. According to Dingell, the response was: "There's no way you're going to get a single vote on this [Republican] side of the aisle. You will not only not get a vote here, but we've been instructed that if we participate in that undertaking at all, those of us who do will lose our seniority and will not be ranking minority members within the Republican Party."

In early March, 1994, Senate Republicans invited Newt Gingrich, then House minority leader, to caucus with them about health care. Gingrich warned against compromise, a view echoed by Senator Phil Gramm. A few months later, at a Republican meeting in Boston, Bob Dole, then Senate minority leader, promised to "filibuster and kill" any health care bill with an employer mandate.

By then Gingrich had united House Republicans against passage of health reform and told the New York Times he wanted "to use the issue as a springboard to win Republican control of the House." Gingrich predicted Republicans would pick up thirty-four House seats in the November elections and half a dozen disaffected Democrats would switch parties to give Republicans control.

By August, it was over. It didn't matter that Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the Senate by 56 to 44 and in the House by 257 to 176. Health care was a lost cause. Republican Senator Bob Packwood boasted to his colleagues "We've killed health care reform."

In early September, William Kristol of the Project for the Republican Future spelled out the next stage of the Republican battle plan: "I think we can continue to wrap the Clinton plan around the necks of Democratic candidates." And that's exactly what they did. On November 8 voters repudiated President Clinton. They brought Republicans to power at every level of government. Democrats went from a controlling majority of 257 seats in the House of Representatives to a minority of 204, and lost the Senate.

I remember how shocked we were the morning after the votes were counted. I asked one of Clinton's political advisors what had happened. "It was health care," he said, simply. (That advisor, by the way, is now in the Obama White House.)

Today's Republican battle plan is exactly the same as it was sixteen years ago. In fact, it's been the same since President Obama assumed office. They never were serious about compromise. They were serious only about regaining power. From the start, Republicans have remembered the lesson of 1994. Now, as they prepare to vote, House Dems should remember the lesson as well.

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Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written twelve books, including "The Work of Nations," "Locked in the Cabinet," and his most recent book, "Supercapitalism." His "Marketplace" commentaries can be found on and iTunes. your social media marketing partner


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+4 # Guest 2010-03-16 05:46
Since our DLC president presented a Republican bill to "reform" health care at the outset and declined even to fight for that, it was a failure before it started. The sausage makers have continually made the bill more complex (largely on secondary issues), making its ultimate effects unclear. But they have addressed only two of the dozen or so major reasons that reform is needed ("pre-existing conditions," and near-total exclusion of one in six persons). They have increased the size and power of the insurance companies, yet they claim that this will somehow cost the government so much less that it can subsidize well over half the population at the new, higher rates. And we still have employers in the middle, for no good reason. As a left-wing economist (yes, Virginia...) I see no benefit in any version of this bill for anyone except SOME of those currently excluded and the insurance companies. Is that and the slim chance of keeping feckless Democrats in office worth the sacrifices?
+3 # Guest 2010-03-16 07:45
Membership in the U.S. Congress is not public service; it's self-service, and that's true on both sides of the aisle. The two-party duopoly is itself a fundamental scandal. The Oath of Office taken by elected officials is, as a practical matter, non-binding and downright quaint. What to do? Nobody knows, so experimentation is needed, but the necessary courage and vision are missing. Near-term, I guess we should throw everybody out of Congress and get a fresh start. What else can be done, when desire for re-election universally trumps desire for our national well-being? In such an environment, nothing is sacred, not even the rule of law.
+1 # Guest 2010-03-16 10:05
History is most worthwhile when you can draw upon it for a lesson in current reality.

The only lesson I currently draw is that we need to rid ourselves of both parties. No more Dems, no more Repubs, or as I prefer to call them, Republirats.

They represent and support corruption, not the people.
+1 # Guest 2010-03-16 10:22
Many congresspeople are staying mum (not dumb) on their final vote. To speak up in public would make them lightning rods for the perpetually shrill naysayers.

We, the people, in order to create a more perfect union, must step up and speak up to our representatives . There's a few days left to do so. There are more of us who want reform (by a wide margin) than don't. We all know someone who depend on it. We must be our own lobbyists and we can call others who will be too. Phone calls are cheap, fast, and effective; and they MUST be made.

Why are you still sitting here reading my drivel when you should be on the phone?
+1 # Guest 2010-03-16 11:07
In my 25+ years of voting I have never personally made a vote, with consideration to Party Affiliation. I vote for those who have good plans for what America needs. I am not concerned if the candidate Reb/Dem.
So why are there elections any way? Most candidates end up following their party, and I want to see a candidate who will stand and be counted as a voice for my country. At least two times when I went to vote at a primary/general elections that I could not in good conscience for any of the candidates.
0 # lestat_B 2010-03-18 22:24
Perhaps, history taught lessons to politics for a nourishing health care reform. There is a worthy national concern over health care costs, as they are the cause of 6 of every 10 bankruptcies, and send a lot of people running for payday loans.

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