Health Care and the Political Lessons of History

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

But 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, along with their patsies such as the National Association of Manufacturers and fiercest partisans, such as 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 had looked as if Clinton’s health care proposal would sail through Congress. But the process dragged on and by 1994 it had bogged down. We knew health care was imperiled but none of us knew 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 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 do. On November 8 voters repudiated President Clinton. They brought Republicans to power at ever level of government. Democrats went from a controlling majority 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 as well.

About Robert Reich 545 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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