At the Democratic debate in Austin last week, Senator Hillary Clinton declared her experience in the 1990s in developing and promoting health care reform would serve her well if elected president. She claimed it would help her stand up to the special interests. Senator Barack Obama responded it was her approach to health care reform that doomed the effort. He is right. She is wrong.
Senator Clinton blames special interests, especially the insurance companies, for defeating the health care reform package she developed for her husband’s administration in 1993-94. There’s some merit to the claim. Tens of millions of dollars went to lobbying, advertising and organizing against the proposal. But while that level of spending would have made passage more difficult, if the plan had been well conceived and well promoted it would not have been enough. With Democrats in the White House and controlling Congress, the right plan, developed and sold in the right way should have been successful. And that was the problem. Under now-Senator Clinton’s leadership, the plan was developed in secrecy and presented to the public and decision makers with unforgivable ineptitude.
Senator Clinton talks a lot about reaching out to all points of view to fashion consensus policies and programs. Now. Then, however, it was her way or the highway. In late-1992 she began assembling a large group of very smart people to develop her health care reform package. They sequestered themselves in Washington and talked among themselves. Occasionally they’d seek input from outsiders. But like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, you were either on the bus or off the bus. And if you were off the bus, your opinions didn’t matter.
This created two problems. First, developing policy in an echo chamber rarely works. The results may look good when considered in a vacumn, but when exposed to the real world, one flaw cascades through the interwoven assumptions, reducing the whole to dust. The Clinton health care plan of 1993 and 1994 was beautiful to behold, an exquisite example of theoretical policy. It was also fragile. Because the Clinton administration was unwilling to accept advice or input or, heaven forbid, changes, from the outside, it lacked a foundation to withstand deep scrutiny. Much to the surprise of the Clinton health care working group, their plan was flawed. And those flaws led to the unravelling of the whole.
Second, excluding members of Congress from the process was just stupid. By ignoring even Democrats in Congress, there was no one at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue who had any stake in the outcome. In fact, it merely engendered hostility. I participated in three Congressional hearings, representing the National Association of Health Underwriters (NAHU is an association for health insurance agents and other professionals). None of the questioning dived deeply into the Clinton health care plan. There was plenty of questions concerning other reform proposals, but our criticism of the Administration’s plan was pretty well accepted by the Congressional panels.
The lack of an open process is one of the reasons Assembly Bill X1-1 failed in the California legislature. To their credit, the staff of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger consulted with far more “outsiders” than the Clinton health care task force. But these were seriel discussions held in private. No one really knew what the entire package looked like until months into the Year of Health Care Reform. As a result, when the legislation reached the State Senate, there were few there who had a stake in its passage. When faced with the state’s budget crisis, it was easier for them to let health care reform slide away.
The lesson is clear: developing health care reform requires an open, inclusive process. Every opinion and perspective needs to be represented. Senator Obama gets this. Unlike Senator John Edwards, who claimed he wouldn’t let the insurance industry participate in developing his health care reform legislation, Senator Obama said they’d have a seat at the table, they just wouldn’t be able to buy them all.
It’s this approach to openness and collaboration that holds the greatest promise of success. Senator Clinton tried the old way. It didn’t work. Her continuing the blame the special interests instead of her own mistakes for the defeat of the Clinton Administration’s health care plan shows she may not have learned the right lesson. And that’s another reason she’s no longer the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.