Crib Death

September 29, 1994|By CHRIS MATTHEWS

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Three years ago, a senator from Pennsylvania was killed in an airplane crash. Harris Wofford, the Democrat chosen to fill his seat, faced an instant threat. His Republican rival, former governor Dick Thornburgh, was 40 points ahead in the polls. To turn things around, the Wofford-for-Senate campaign needed a powerhouse campaign issue.

It picked health care.

At first, the choice seemed an odd one. Here was a blue-collar state full of small coal, steel and farming towns hurting from recession. Families worried that their breadwinner's job was the next one to go. They worried even more in these aging Pennsylvania towns that nobody else was hiring. A layoff meant months, even years, of hard times.

Why didn't Mr. Wofford make ''jobs'' his campaign slogan? I asked campaign strategist Paul Begala with the election coming fast. ''Because Thornburgh's for jobs!'' he explained. To overcome Mr. Thornburgh's huge lead, Senator Wofford needed to get a tussle going. He needed a topic on which he and Mr. Thornburgh could disagree, something the voters could see that Harris Wofford was with 'em, Dick Thornburgh was against 'em. The campaign needed an issue which showed Harris Wofford in

touch with people's economic fears, the former governor out of touch.

What Mr. Begala and his partner James Carville needed was a ''wedge,'' a tool to separate the working- and middle-class voters from the Republican candidate, a product Democrats were willing to deliver the nervous voting families of Pennsylvania and the Republicans were not.

''If criminals have a right to a lawyer,'' a shirt-sleeved Senator Wofford began saying in TV commercials written by media expert Robert Shrum, ''the working American has a right to a doctor.''

Ten strike! By siding with the ''working American,'' Mr. Woffordspoke directly to the working family's worst fear: being out of work. By siding against the ''criminals,'' he voiced the blue-collar rage at a federal government which showers the down-and-out with entitlements but stiffs the families who punch a time clock and sweat the bills.

Senator Wofford beat Mr. Thornburgh, the 40-point favorite, by 10 percentage points. A three-month campaign highlighting health care had changed the political minds of half the Pennsylvania electorate.

Paul Begala and James Carville, the winning strategists, had found their issue for 1992. When Bill and Hillary Clinton signed them up for the presidential campaign, the two brought health care with them.

This is where the mutation occurred. Having been conceived in the womb of a political campaign, the health-care incubus was transferred to the laboratory. A social engineer named Ira Magaziner, operating in the secret and sterile world of the laboratory, gave birth to a health-care plan sanitized from the gritty world of campaigns, voters, people.

Health care had become a test-tube baby.

The creation which emerged was frightening to all but its adoptive parents, Bill and Hillary Clinton. ''Alliances'' would bind Americans together for purchases of health-care services. Instead of earning health care through their work, Americans could now count on Washington to deliver it. For this, a card would be issued. Big Government would take care of everything.

The issue that had once been a Democratic ''wedge'' to drive the middle class from the Republicans now loomed as the ''wedge'' between the Democrats and the middle class. Republicans were willing to protect the voters from Big Government. Democrats would not.

In its life cycle from conception to birth to infancy, the Clintons' political baby had gone full circle: from something the middle class wanted to something it feared. Health-care reform died in its crib this week for the simple reason that its natural parents wanted nothing to do with it.

Christopher Matthews is a syndicated columnist.

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