Clinton White House was concerned with healthcare backlash

The Clinton White House was painfully aware of the political damage done to former President Clinton’s agenda after his failed push for healthcare reform in the mid-1990s, newly released private documents show.

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White House health adviser Ira Magaziner warned Clinton in a memo meant to prepare him for a sit-down with authors David Broder and Haynes Johnson on July 17, 1995, that he would have to explain what was seen as the “health care debacle” of his administration.

“Right now, as you know, the First Lady and I and to some extent you, are blamed for the so called ‘health care debacle’ by the Washington conventional wisdom,” Magaziner wrote.

“You were influenced by your ultraliberal wife and ‘wonky’ old college friend to accept this unwise venture over the objections of most of your advisors,” Magaziner said, of public perception of the push. “Your presidency, the Democratic party and any chance of reasonable health reform went down the drain due to this grave error.”

Magaziner counseled Clinton to push back on such assessments, previewing talking points that most recently become a part of President Obama’s arsenal of responses to criticism of the healthcare law from both parties.

Magaziner noted that the major planks of reform pushed by Clinton “were considered moderate when first proposed,” and reminded the president to note that “there’s no way to solve the problems of the health care system without creating fierce controversy.”

The Magaziner memo was one of about 2,000 pages of documents from the Clinton White House released by the Clinton Presidential Library on Friday, the fifth such release this year.

Other documents offer a snapshot of the unique social and political pressures Clinton faced during his time as president.

One, a handwritten note from Joe Bouchard, a national security official, to White House official Robert Bell, decried the prospect of an openly gay service member being allowed to return to service on a submarine after battling his dismissal in court. 

Bouchard said returning the soldier to duty would be “a terrible idea.”

"The morale and cohesion of whatever sub he is put on will be destroyed," he added.

Those pressures likely informed Clinton’s decision to endorse the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that barred openly gay people from serving in the military but prohibited discrimination against those who remained in the closet.

In another document, detailing a practice session for the 1996 State of the Union Speech, Clinton is quoted as attributing congressional Republicans’ push to close the Commerce Department as a product partially of racism. 

"The reason they want to get rid of the Commerce Department is they are foaming at the mouth that Ron Brown is better than all of those Republican corporate executives who got those cheeky jobs because they gave big money to Republican presidential candidates," Clinton told aides. "And here is this black guy who is a better secretary of Commerce than anybody since Herbert Hoover, which he was a success at."

Another memo reveals the difficult internal deliberations going on surrounding the mass killings in Rwanda. The White House was reluctant to outright designate the situation as a genocide or take action to stop the killings, a hesitation that Clinton would later identify as one of his biggest regrets.

An email, sent on May 26, 1994 by legal adviser Alan Kreczko to Donald Steinberg, the National Security Council aide who handled Affrican affairs, seemed to provide cover for the White House’s reluctance to act.

“Concluding that genocide has occurred/is occurring in Rwanda does not create a legal obligation to take particular action to stop it,” Kreczko writes, but adds, "making such a determination will increase political pressure to do something about it."

This piece was updated at 9 p.m.

Pierre De Dreuzy and Peter Sullivan contributed.