President Clinton blames himself for a strategic error that led to the defeat of his health care reform plan and says in a new book that the plan’s defeat cost Democrats control of Congress in 1994.
“I set the Congress up for failure,” Clinton said in an interview with two veteran Washington journalists who tracked the horse trading and the behind-the-scenes intrigues of the universal health care debate.
In the 1995 interview, Clinton said that after seeing the early difficulties the proposal faced in the Senate, he should have moved away from a strategy that sought major reform in a short period of time.
“This is entirely my mistake,” he said, “no one else’s. I probably made a mistake in not then going for a multiyear strategy, and not trying to say we’ve got to try to do it in ‘94.”
In their book “The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point,” journalists David S. Broder and Haynes Johnson report that Clinton said he set himself up for failure, too, but that Congress had to pay the price two years before his next electoral test.
“I feel badly about that. We had an opportunity, and our leaders thought we might make it,” Clinton said. “But I think that our system probably cannot absorb this much reform with this much involved that quickly.”
The book, published by Little, Brown and Co., began as an effort to track the making of major new social legislation, but the project evolved into an examination of the American policy-making system as Clinton’s health care package went down to defeat.
The authors gained unusual access to lawmakers, lobbyists and members of the administration’s health care task force. The book chronicles the brinksmanship and internecine wars that ensued, and asks whether the system still works.
“In these closing years of the century, a time of historic stresses on government, growing cynicism about politicians and institutions … and increasing power of private interests … how well does The System serve the people?” it asks.
Clinton offers one answer, saying that he hopes the defeat of health care reform doesn’t convince people that “the system won’t work,” but adding that it “is more responsive to those that are organized and very wealthy.”
The president also stressed that the greatest challenges lie ahead, as Republicans and Democrats battle over their differing visions for America at the close of the 20th century.
“We’re having debates here in the Congress about the role of government and the responsibilities of government that are more profound than the ones we had at the dawn of the Depression,” he said.
Broder, a national correspondent and syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, is a commentator and author on politics. Johnson, a former national reporter for the Post, is the author of 11 books.
The book examines how a loose confederation of special interest groups waged a costly lobbying battle to defeat the health care plan, and how new House Speaker Newt Gingrich maneuvered to ensure health care’s defeat would translate into Republican victory in 1994.
It also details concerns among Clinton advisers that the plan was too complex and that the administration’s explanation of it was too vague.
Several presidential fits of temper also are chronicled. “He can really explode - blow, blow,” remarked one aide who witnessed several red-faced outbursts.
In their post-mortem, Broder and Johnson say Clinton made “a major mistake” when he named first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and adviser Ira Magaziner to head a White House task force on health care.
While Magaziner did a “thorough job” and Hillary Clinton was “eloquent, tireless,” the book says “having Hillary at the head of the task force inhibited the political debate within the administration.”
And the secrecy in which the task force operated encouraged frustrated staffers and congressional aides to leak damaging information to the press.
Clinton told the authors that by choosing his wife, “people would know that I was really serious about trying to do this.”
But an unidentified official said the decision limited the exchange of views among Cabinet secretaries and other advisers.
“They went about this exactly the right way, with one exception,” the source said. “The person who’s in charge shouldn’t sleep with the president, because if you sleep with the president, nobody is going to tell you the truth.”