It was September of 1993, and former President Bill Clinton was a couple weeks away from addressing a joint session of Congress about his ultimately-doomed health care reform plan. White House aides worried that there was “great disquiet” on Capitol Hill about the difficulties and political repercussions of moving forward with the massive overhaul. So then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, whose role in crafting reform was so central that opponents derisively referred to it as HillaryCare, was dispatched to assuage the fears of congressional Democratic leaders.
She was blunt about the political challenges ahead.
“I’m not going to underestimate the political battle that will ensue because of this, but I want to give you some sense of what we have done to prepare for it and the kind of allies that we think we will have, because we do not intend on any of this to leave the Congress on its own,” Clinton said at the time.
Her comments, revealed in thousands of pages of documents released Friday by Clinton’s presidential library, open a new window into her role on the ’90s health care reform push, which proved to be her first major political failure and narrowed the vision of her husband’s presidency for the remainder of his time in office. They show that even as she forged ahead with an ambitious reform plan that skeptics correctly warned would sink under its own weight, she was conscientious of the political risks she was asking Democrats to take. Thousands of more pages of documents are set to be released by the Clinton library in the weeks ahead, and they’re being closely watched for how they could impact Hillary Clinton’s potential 2016 presidential candidacy.
Clinton’s remarks eerily foreshadow the health care debate that consumed Washington more than 15 years later, when President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats finally made reform a reality. Just like Democrats rushed to push through a reform bill while Obama still enjoyed congressional majorities in both chambers, Clinton warned that time was short and that attempting to rewire the country’s health care system would steer reformers into uncharted waters.
“We have tried (inaudible) as carefully as possible all the alternatives and all the features that are in this plan, and I think that there will be, very honestly, a period of adjustment, a period of setting, before any of you will feel comfortable with all the features of this, because we are really approaching the health care system in a different way,” she said. “I think that, unfortunately, in the glare of the public political process, we may not have as much time as we need for that kind of thoughtful reflection and research, but I think we have to resist as hard as possible any tendency to leap to judgement.”
And just as Democrats have struggled to sell the benefits of Obamacare when it comes to expanding access to health insurance, Clinton warned that HillaryCare should be sold on other merits.
“It may be an unpleasant fact for some of us Democrats to face, but the argument is not going to be won on bringing in the uninsured,” Clinton said. “The argument is going to be won on keeping [coverage] for everybody, including those who are insured, but may not be next year or the year after.”
In trying to steel Democrats against arguments opposing HillaryCare, Clinton described opposition tactics that closely track the GOP’s efforts to derail Obamacare. She even foreshadowed the now-infamous promise made by Obama-era Democrats that under the reform package, people would be able to keep their insurance and their doctor if they wanted to.
“So they have certainly made their presence known by putting their money against this plan before they really even understand it,” she said of reform opponents. “Of course, they are not running ads which say ‘This might put me, the independent insurance agent, out of business.’ They are running ads saying, ‘You’ll lose your choice of doctors.’ They’re doing all the emotional stuff.’”
-with reporting from Zeke J Miller