Healthy for Hillary’s campaign

Fourteen years ago this month “Harry and Louise” first appeared on CNN and local television stations in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. We didn’t set out to launch an iconic campaign. Harry and Louise were just the best idea we could come up with after dozens of focus groups and a couple of national surveys designed to find some way of derailing what appeared to be the unstoppable train of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s national healthcare plan.

The campaign was rooted in good research. Working with Democrat Bill Hamilton and Republican Bill McInturff, we discovered, just as Clinton’s pollsters had, that two-thirds of Americans wanted “radical healthcare reform.” But we probed deeper to find out just what Americans meant by “radical reform.” It turned out that it was healthcare coverage they could afford, coverage they could get no matter their medical history and coverage they could keep if they lost or changed their job. That didn’t seem so radical to our client, the Health Insurance Association of America, given the alternative of Clinton Health Care. So HIAA proposed reforms that would accomplish those three goals and offered to join in a campaign to promote them. Hillary’s task force would hear none of it. “We need an enemy and you are it,” HIAA representatives were told. So over 11 months and 14 commercials Harry and Louise agreed with the need for fundamental reform but questioned the complexities and unintended consequences of the Clinton proposal.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) clearly got the message from that battle. She now says cooperation is the only way to get anything done. She has actively solicited the opinions of insurers, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies. She has raised over half a million dollars from the same interests that opposed her 1993-94 proposal — only a fraction of her $63 million war chest but far more than that garnered by any other candidate for president.

Most significantly, she sounded much like Harry and Louise when she laid out her healthcare reform proposal in Iowa this week. Standing in front of a made-for-television backdrop with the “Health Choices Plan” logo visible from any camera angle, she proclaimed that she was not proposing “a government takeover of healthcare.” Her plan would allow us to “keep the doctors you know and trust,” let us stick with “the insurance you have if you like it” and would expand personal choice. Choice was a consistent theme in her speech, with lines such as “If you are an employer, you choose” and “If you are an individual, you choose.” She added, “We will provide tax credits to ensure you can pay for” the coverage you choose. Fourteen years ago the health insurance industry would have been scrambling to applaud that rhetoric.

The three principles that I mentioned above — Sen. Clinton has them nailed. “You will never be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions … your coverage will be guaranteed … even if you lose your job,” change your job, start your own business or just quit working. “Your coverage will be affordable …” Harry and Louise couldn’t have said it better.

As any reader of this column will know, I have been critical of Sen. Clinton in the past. But I am impressed with her healthcare reform message. Nearly two-thirds of all voters and over 90 percent of Democrats trust her on this issue. They should. She has moved beyond the wholesale restructuring she advocated in 1993-94 and crafted a plan that preserves the private system Americans who have insurance like while extending coverage to 47 million who don’t have it now. She would put the squeeze on providers to wring waste from the system, mandate coverage for everyone and make the wealthiest of us ease the burden on those who can least afford to pay for insurance.

There are details in Clinton’s plan everyone can disagree with. I am concerned that her proposals could have the unintended consequence of driving up rates and reducing coverage for those who have insurance. As always, the devil will be in the details. But the knee-jerk response from her Republican opponents, that this is “socialized medicine,” will not be believed outside their true-believer base. We’ve tested that language, and it just doesn’t work with most voters. Her Democratic opponents’ claim that they have a better plan gets no traction. Hillary Clinton has fought on this battleground before. She knows the territory, she’s on message and on this issue she now has the upper hand.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com