Clinton Myth Spins Obama toward Midterm Massacre

It is looking more and more like the Democratic Party's idea of health-care reform will be enacted, notwithstanding the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts and the opposition of the American people.

If the legislation does survive the gathering political storm, then it will present historians with a fascinating puzzle. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton tried to enact universal health care, and his failure wiped out the Democratic Party in the next election. In 2010, history may show, President Barack Obama won passage of health-care legislation, and his success wiped out the Democratic Party in the next election, if not beyond.

How can opposite results have the same political outcome? The best explanation is that Democratic politicians swallowed Clinton's spin about his first major defeat--it was a failure of process, not ideas--while voters didn't. The fallacy of the Clinton spin is so striking in retrospect, such a gross misreading of what actually happened, that the movie version of Obama's first year in office should be titled "Revenge of the Clintons."

In 2010, history may show, President Barack Obama won passage of health-care legislation, and his success wiped out the Democratic Party in the next election, if not beyond.

Think back to the debacle that was Hillarycare.

Five days after his inauguration, Bill Clinton appointed his wife to head a task force on health-care reform. Hillary Clinton spent months devising the plan presented to Congress in September 1993. Effective television ads, including the memorable "Harry and Louise" spots funded by the Health Insurance Association of America, turned the American public strongly against the Clinton plan.

The Voters Speak

The legislation failed to win approval in a Congress controlled by Democrats. A few weeks after then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell declared the bill dead, Republicans seized control of the legislative branch by gaining seven Senate seats and 52 House seats in the 1994 midterm elections.

What went wrong with Hillarycare? If you believed the Clinton administration, the problem was the politics, not the substance. Paul Starr, a Princeton University professor who advised Clinton on health care, explained it this way: "The lesson for next time in health reform is faster, smaller. We made the error of trying to do too much at once, took too long, and ended up achieving nothing."

Sara Rosenbaum, one of the primary drafters of the legislation, said the biggest problem was the lack of congressional involvement.

Wrong Branch

"It was a terrible error to have the president doing what Congress was supposed to do," she later said. "It was a misuse of the relationship between the legislative branch and the executive branch. The executive branch is supposed to generate action, and the committees are supposed to actually take the action. By sending a 1,300-page bill, you're writing a detailed blueprint for the policy rather than using the congressional process to create a consensus."

This is, in liberal circles, the accepted wisdom regarding the Hillary health-care plan: Americans would have loved the policy if only they had had a chance to get to know it. Politically motivated sniping distracted Americans from the true substance, which got lost in the weeds. If the bill had passed, Americans would have seen how much it improved their lives, and the Democrats would have been heroes.

Obama, who is surrounded by many of the same economic advisers who served Clinton, clearly developed his strategy with an eye toward this explanation for the Clinton failure. Most importantly, he refrained from sending Congress a 1,300-page plan. Instead, he let Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid manage the gory details.

Legislative Abominations

Strictly speaking, Obama's calculation may have been correct. Allowing Congress to craft such abominations as the so- called Louisiana Purchase and Cornhusker Kickback made legislative success--defined as enough "yes" votes in both chambers--more likely.

But the fundamental politics are the same. An ABC News poll in March 1994 found that 48 percent of Americans disapproved of Clinton's health-care plan. ABC News reported last month that 49 percent of Americans opposed Obama's plan.

If 48 percent disapproval can lead to a political earthquake, so can 49 percent. Ask Senator Brown of Massachusetts.

Why is opposition almost identical in 1994 and now? The easiest explanation is that Americans oppose the substance of both bills. They like the health care they have and do not want government bureaucrats to insert themselves into that very important corner of their lives. They are compassionate and want to provide health care to those lacking it but do not want to pay for it with a radical restructuring of their own care.

Right Move

Like Clinton, Obama continues to be personally popular. Clinton recovered from the rout in 1994 to win reelection two years later because, despite his rhetoric, he appeared to have learned from the health-care debacle. He recognized that Americans wanted less socialism, not more. Soon, he gave them welfare reform.

The Republican Congress allowed him to do something that a Democratic Congress would not--govern as the reasonable moderate that he promised to be in his first presidential campaign. Clinton's comeback seems easy in retrospect. He had genuine bipartisan accomplishment to point to precisely because he veered to the right.

Sadly for Obama and the Democrats, Clinton's later successes didn't fully drown out his delusional early spin on health-care failure.

Obamacare has replaced Hillarycare, and the details and circumstances are eerily similar. When Democrats are sent packing in November by voters, they can thank Clinton for their political defeat.

Kevin A. Hassett is a senior fellow and the director of economic policy studies at AEI.

Photo Credit: Flickr user marcn/Creative Commons

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About the Author


Kevin A.
  • Kevin A. Hassett is the State Farm James Q. Wilson Chair in American Politics and Culture at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He is also a resident scholar and AEI's director of economic policy studies.

    Before joining AEI, Hassett was a senior economist at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and an associate professor of economics and finance at Columbia (University) Business School. He served as a policy consultant to the US Department of the Treasury during the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.

    Hassett has also been an economic adviser to presidential candidates since 2000, when he became the chief economic adviser to Senator John McCain during that year's presidential primaries. He served as an economic adviser to the George W. Bush 2004 presidential campaign, a senior economic adviser to the McCain 2008 presidential campaign, and an economic adviser to the Mitt Romney 2012 presidential campaign.

    Hassett is the author or editor of many books, among them "Rethinking Competitiveness" (2012), "Toward Fundamental Tax Reform" (2005), "Bubbleology: The New Science of Stock Market Winners and Losers" (2002), and "Inequality and Tax Policy" (2001). He is also a columnist for National Review and has written for Bloomberg.

    Hassett frequently appears on Bloomberg radio and TV, CNBC, CNN, Fox News Channel, NPR, and "PBS NewsHour," among others. He is also often quoted by, and his opinion pieces have been published in, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

    Hassett has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.A. in economics from Swarthmore College.

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