Something for Nothing

ClintonCare will fail because it's no New Democrat plan.


A November 27 National Journal story describes how the Clinton administration has hijacked the Democratic National Committee. Under chairman David Wilhelm, the DNC has doubled its staff, from nearly 100 when Ron Brown took over in 1989 to more than 200 today. And while the party raised $16.4 million in the first six months of 1993—a record for a non-presidential-election year—it spent $18.9 million over the same period. As it prepares for mid-term congressional elections, the DNC has less than $1 million in the bank; the Republicans expect to have $6 million cash on hand and no debts.

One House Democratic leadership aide tells National Journal, "The perception [on Capitol Hill] is that [the DNC is] a lobbying operation to get the President's agenda through. That is important to us, but we've … got to turn our attention to reelecting Democrats."

Bill Clinton has put himself in a jam. It's hard to claim a mandate to govern when you win with less than 50 percent of the popular vote. The president has compounded his troubles by downplaying the very issues that won him critical states in 1992. Clinton may be unintentionally doing the country a big favor: His obsession with nationalizing health care at the expense of everything else may make it impossible to pass sweeping health-care reforms.

In 1992, Democrats were savvy enough to recognize that neither a Mondale-style tax-and-spender nor a technocrat in the Dukakis mold could defeat George Bush, no matter how little Bush deserved a second term. Clinton sealed his party's nomination by constantly asserting he was a different kind of Democrat. When he promised "no more something for nothing," and argued that public policies shouldn't punish "people who work hard and play by the rules," swing voters agreed. Every time Clinton's fitful campaign faltered, he rejuvenated it by talking about his "New Covenant" (remember that?), middle-class tax cuts, welfare reform, or community policing.

Since the election, the popular items on his campaign agenda have languished. Consider the crime bills awaiting resolution on Capitol Hill. Both the House and Senate versions contain troublesome components—ill-conceived gun-control measures, "federalization" of crimes that are better prosecuted locally, unnecessary extensions of the death penalty. Other parts of the bills, including money to build prisons and put more cops on the street, could take a bite out of crime.

But all of the ingredients—the good and the bad–came from Congress. Except for gun control, and touchy-feely speeches about addressing the "root causes" of criminal behavior, Clinton has been silent about specific policies that could make neighborhoods safer. He didn't even fight for his campaign pledge to put an extra 100,000 cops on the street; Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) had to stick it in the Senate version of the bill.

Then there's welfare reform. Clinton's promise to "end welfare as we know it" excited centrist voters and policy intellectuals. And it has encouraged reformers to propose experiments in Wisconsin, Oregon, New Jersey, and other states, led to concrete proposals from Republicans on Capitol Hill, and earned the intense scrutiny of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who has decried welfare dependency for a generation. But Clinton advisers Bruce Reed and Ira Magaziner now say the administration won't try to pass welfare reform this year. Forget bipartisan support and solid public backing for sweeping changes in poverty programs. The White House will concentrate exclusively on passing ClintonCare.

The Clintonites will need a lot of help. In late September, just after the president outlined his plan to Congress, a CNN/USA Today poll found 59 percent of Americans favored the plan and 33 percent opposed it. In November, support had fallen to 52 percent in favor, 41 percent against.

By December 2, a CNN/Time poll showed that only 9 percent of the respondents wanted Congress to pass the plan without changes; another 33 percent said pass it with minor alterations; 22 percent said make major changes first; and 25 percent urged rejecting the plan altogether. By a margin of 47 percent to 42 percent, Americans preferred major changes or nothing to ClintonCare, even with slight modifications.

One reason the president's health plan may be in trouble: It embodies "something for nothing," the antithesis of Bill Clinton's campaign. ClintonCare would require everyone to purchase health coverage initially, but the plan also says that once enrolled, you can never lose coverage, even when you don't pay your premiums.

It would force prospective physicians to enter general practice rather than the specialties they (and their patients) may prefer. And if a health plan inside one of the regional alliances goes broke, ClintonCare requires doctors to keep providing medical services without pay.

Candidate Clinton said, "People don't want some top-down bureaucracy telling them what to do." President Clinton has decided to rest his fortunes on the success of his health plan, which would establish the biggest bureaucracy in U.S. history. As Americans realize that the man occupying the White House isn't the one they elected, Bill Clinton will have plenty of trouble enacting his unhealthy medical reforms.