The stakes in Hillary's health plan

Sandy Grady

August 16, 1993|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON — IT SEEMS eons ago, back in the prehistoric 1992 campaign, that Hillary Clinton looked a CBS camera in the eye and said, "I'm not just some Tammy Wynette, standin' by her man."

Now she's not only got to Stand by Her Man.

She's got to Stand by the Plan.

As designer and defender of the president's sweeping health plan, Hillary Rodham Clinton will be a national lightning rod -- a kind of political Madonna.

When her husband made her the Health Czarina, he said, "No one else I know has her ability to organize and bring together coalitions."

Well, we'll see. For ferocity, the battle over health reform will be Little Big Horn. And for Hillary Clinton -- and the rest of us -- stakes are huge.

If she succeeds, she'll knock Eleanor Roosevelt out of history books as Most Valuable Player among first ladies.

After all, presidential wives hold congressional teas, visit sick toddlers or smile dutifully at state dinners. Hillary Clinton is the first White House wife to lead such a monstrously complex debate as health care.

If health reform works, the Clintons' achievement will tower alongside FDR's Social Security, LBJ's civil rights bill and Ike's highway system. Not too shabby.

But if Hillary fails, ho-hum -- Democrats will get killed in the 1994 mid-term elections and her husband can lose the White House.

True, Hillary Clinton is no rookie at controversy. She provokes rage from right-wing TV pontifacators Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan because she's supposedly an evil, leftist Lady Macbeth. And yes, lately, she's gushed new-age mush.

"We need a new politics of meaning," she has said. "We must redefine who we are as human beings in the modern age."

Yep, makes you think. Or want a long nap.

Then there's sexist bickering over Hillary Clinton's style and hair, a subject she despises. Never mind that the short, June Allyson coiffeur makes her look like a model in a 1950s refrigerator ad.

Nitpicking aside, Mrs. Clinton has taken the health-care battle into dens of lions -- doctors, lawyers and insurers who'll lobby hardest against change. "We've got to eliminate the state of mind that there's a free lunch, a free ride, something for nothing," she told 4,000 members of the American Hospital Association.

She talked 40 minutes without notes. Amazingly, the hospital claque applauded.

But let's face raw politics. Czarina Hillary's chances of getting a health plan through Congress aren't good. This year they are zero.

Resistance will be stiff. The public is dead-set against more taxes. It's the "haves" vs. "have-nots" -- people with medical insurance fear they'll pay more to cover 37 million uninsured. Employers don't want to be forced into coverage. And the plan, using pooled "health alliances," is as hard to explain as Einstein's theory.

"This makes the budget battle look like a picnic," sighed Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

The czarina and her zillion task forces have come up with a snappy slogan: "The Health Care That's Always There." They brag it will offer "Security, Savings, Simplicity." "Talking points" are offered for common folks' worries: Will I be able to choose a doctor? Will medical quality be sacrificed? Will it kill small businesses? (Presumably, the answers are yes, no, no.)

But the Clintons, in the six weeks before Bill unveils The Plan to Congress, must nail down the big riddle: How to pay? One guess is a $1-a-pack cigarette "sin" tax. Congressfolk from tobacco states will howl.

Learning from the First Hubby's mistake on the budget, though, Hillary Clinton has politicked hard to engage Republicans in the health dialogue. Her patron, Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., figures the Clintons can bring along 20 or 25 Republican senators "if both sides watch their rhetoric."

But health care, as the czarina will discover, splits politicians into nastier factions than Bosnia. Democratic liberals will hold out for a "single-player" Canadian plan. Moderates want a plan less expensive and far-reaching than the Clintons' federal extravaganza. The Republican right says it ain't broke, don't fix it.

He's notorious for flip-flops, but Mr. Clinton has consistently harangued since mid-campaign that without a grip on health costs, national red ink will zoom. He's right. But if the first lady can produce a miracle plan that's fair, workable and inexpensive, she's sainted as Joan of Arc.

I suspect after October you'll see Hillary Clinton on talk shows, the campaign stump and congressional sessions, selling hard for The Plan. If anything, she's more persistent, tough and talkative than Bill.

It will be a historic, out-front, myth-shaking role for a First Wife.

If she flops -- if the public rebels and politicians bolt, there'll be anti-Hillary bumper stickers like one I saw on a pickup truck: "Don't blame me -- I voted for HIM."

Sometime in 1994, Czarina Hillary may win a health-care plan by her gab and grit.

She'll stand by her man. And it isn't the first time.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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