Walking the healthcare tightrope

It has been nearly 14 years since the first “Harry and Louise” commercial questioned the Clinton healthcare plan. But Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) can’t seem to let it go. On numerous occasions in recent weeks she’s blamed that campaign for defeating the proposal she championed. Well, I know a little about that battle. My partner, Rick Claussen, and I were responsible for conceiving and waging the campaign that became known as “Harry and Louise.” If those ads brought down Clinton healthcare — and, as The Washington Post suggests, launched the genre of advocacy advertising — they could not have succeeded without the arrogance of those who believed they knew what was good for America better than Americans themselves did.

Never in 14 commercials did “Harry and Louise” oppose healthcare reform. There was a simple reason for that. Two-thirds of Americans wanted reforms, just not the heavy-handed government-run healthcare proposed by Hillary and her policy wonks. We got a clear message from our research: Americans wanted healthcare coverage they could get, they could afford and they could take with them if they changed or lost their job. Those findings led health insurers to offer a compromise that included putting “Harry and Louise” on the air to support a simpler system. Hillary and her healthcare guru, Ira Magaziner, would have none of it. “We need an enemy and you are it,” Magaziner told the industry representatives. Another columnist for this paper, Dick Morris, has recently written of that stubborn streak in both Magaziner and the senator who now seeks the White House on her own.

Hillary Clinton, once burned, is too cautious to propose healthcare reform in her presidential campaign. The Wall Street Journal recently noted that she didn’t want to run into “more Harry and Louise ads” if she laid out a detailed plan. Meanwhile, former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has spelled out a healthcare reform proposal in great detail. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has sketched out his proposal and promises to fill in the blanks soon. 

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is basing his campaign for president, in part, on the plan he authored in that state. Across the country, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican governor of California, has a sweeping proposal to re-make health care in the Golden State. These actions by governors have observers wondering if healthcare reform will be done state by state rather than on the federal level.

While governors are at least trying seriously to do something, there are real problems with an incremental approach. What happens if a family moves out of state? Conversely, will uninsured families in Arizona move to California just to get coverage?

Schwarzenegger announced his proposal for universal coverage with the bold statement that “California will not wait” for the feds. He wants to “fix a broken system” and has a plan in which he says “everyone participates.” Skirting the requirement that new taxes require approval by a two-thirds vote in the legislature — written into the Constitution by initiative — the governor would levy “fees,” not “taxes,” on businesses that do not provide healthcare coverage, on doctors and on hospitals.

Republicans are not warming to some elements of the governor’s plan, as we saw by his lukewarm reception at the GOP state convention. Many partisans and business leaders wonder where his “Democratic plan” is coming from. Voters, in general, are less concerned about healthcare reform than education, traffic and immigration. Many are worried about an “overhaul” of the system, just as they were in 1993-’94 over the scope of the Clinton proposal.

If California is an indicator of the national mood, as is often the case, Americans are cautious about healthcare reform. Those who have it don’t want to lose it. While they think everyone should be covered, they are not anxious to pay extra to make that happen. That finding should sound a cautionary note to Edwards. His bold statement that he’d increase taxes to ensure universal coverage may be politically courageous, but it is also politically dangerous.

Schwarzenegger is now talking openly about compromise. He clearly gets the message that Hillary did not 14 years ago. It is one thing to be principled, another to be stubborn. Schwarzenegger is more inclined to accomplish something than go down in flames and then resent it for a decade and a half.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
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