Clinton's journey from bold innovator to dogged guardian

July 29, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The apparent congressional breakthrough on health-care reform has to be a bittersweet outcome for President Clinton, who saw his young presidency plunged into gloom by the spectacular failure of his 1993-94 campaign for much more ambitious reforms.

The greatly scaled-down bill upon which House and Senate negotiators agreed at last week's end, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum and Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, features the two main provisions over which there was minimal dispute in the original administration bill.

The Kassebaum-Kennedy bill will provide ''portability'' -- the right to keep existing health insurance if a worker moves from one job to another -- and will largely remove the current bar in many private plans on coverage for medical conditions that existed prior to an enrollee's employment.

These two provisions might have sailed through Congress two years ago had they not been part of Mr. Clinton's much more comprehensive call for universal coverage, which enabled Republican and insurance-industry foes to label it extreme social engineering.

The far-reaching and complicated Clinton scheme for establishing purchasing pools was targeted as ''socialized medicine'' -- another liberal initiative that contradicted the new president's claim to be ''a new kind of Democrat.''

Mr. Clinton's first two years in the Oval Office would have been quite different had he settled for the more moderate objectives of portability and eliminating pre-existing conditions as a bar to insurance coverage. But he and his advisers thought that drastic health-care reform was an essential first ingredient in cutting the mushrooming federal budget deficit.

First lady Hillary Clinton led the drafting of the plan and the selling of it to Congress. That made her a ready target for charges of power-grabbing from foes of the sweeping plan who were only too happy to have her as a symbol of liberal bureaucracy.

The political impact of the administration's drive for comprehensive health-care reform proved to be colossal. The new president who had been elected as an agent of change found himself pilloried by his opponents as just another big-government Democrat. Republican House leader Newt Gingrich seized on the perception as a key element in his successful drive in 1994 for GOP control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Other factors figured

Other factors certainly figured into that result, including Mr. Clinton's inability to break legislative gridlock on a range of issues even with a Democratic Party majority in both houses in his first two years. But seeking and getting half a loaf on health-care reform could have enabled the president to boast of progress while avoiding the big-spender characterization.

After the failure of his comprehensive health-care reforms and loss of Congress in November, 1994, the president clearly learned the lesson. In his 1996 State of the Union address he declared that ''the era of big government is over.'' His legislative proposals in his second two presidential years avoided sweeping initiatives that would lay him open to the charge that he remains a liberal in moderate's clothing.

While pushing for such less ambitious goals as an increase in the minimum wage -- soft-pedaled in his first two years -- President Clinton has recast himself from bold innovator to guardian against extreme Republican and conservative efforts to roll back past social legislative gains.

So far, the strategy seems to have worked. Newt Gingrich and other Republican leaders, including the presumed presidential nominee Bob Dole, continue to flail at the president as an old-line Democratic liberal whose actions speak more revealingly than his moderate-sounding words. But Mr. Clinton so far rides high in the polls, his legislative debacle of 1993-94 having receded in public memory or concern.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 7/29/96

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