Failing on healthcare means a repeat of 1994

I was in the administration when healthcare died last time, and watched it drag down the congressional Democrats

Published March 16, 2010 2:17PM (EDT)

Healthcare reform is necessary, and House Democrats should vote for it because it’s best for the nation.

They should also remember the political lessons of history. To paraphrase Mark Twain, history doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme. As the White House and the House Democratic leadership try to line up 216 votes to pass health care reform -- and as Republicans, aided by the National Association of Manufacturers and abetted by fierce partisans like Newt Gingrich, try to kill it -- I can’t help thinking back to 1994 when the lineup was much the same.

I was serving in the Clinton administration at the time. In the first months of 1993 it looked as if Clinton's healthcare proposal would sail through Congress. But the process dragged on and by 1994 it bogged down. We knew healthcare was imperiled but none of us knew that failure to pass health care would doom much of the rest of Clinton’s agenda and wrest control of Congress out of the hands of the Democrats. In retrospect, it's clear Republicans did know.

On February 5, 1994, the National Association of Manufacturers passed a resolution declaring its opposition to the Clinton plan. Not long after that, Michigan Democrat John Dingell, who was managing the healthcare bill for the House, approached the senior House Republican on the bill to seek a compromise. According to Dingell, the response was:

There's no way you’re going to get a single vote on this [Republican] side of the aisle. You will not only not get a vote here, but we’ve been instructed that if we participate in that undertaking at all, those of us who do will lose our seniority and will not be ranking minority members within the Republican Party.

In early March, 1994, Senate Republicans invited Newt Gingrich, then House minority leader, to caucus with them about health care. Gingrich warned against compromise, a view echoed by Senator Phil Gramm. A few months later, at a Republican meeting in Boston, Bob Dole, then Senate minority leader, promised to "filibuster and kill" any health care bill with an employer mandate.

By then Gingrich had united House Republicans against passage of health reform and told the New York Times he wanted "to use the issue as a springboard to win Republican control of the House." Gingrich predicted Republicans would pick up 34 House seats in the November elections and half a dozen disaffected Democrats would switch parties to give Republicans control.

By August, it was over. It didn’t matter that Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the Senate by 56 to 44 and in the House by 257 to 176. Health care was a lost cause. Republican Senator Bob Packwood boasted to his colleagues, "We've killed health care reform."

In early September, William Kristol of the Project for the Republican Future spelled out the next stage of the Republican battle plan: "I think we can continue to wrap the Clinton plan around the necks of Democratic candidates." And that’s exactly what they did. On November 8 voters repudiated President Clinton. They brought Republicans to power at every level of government. Democrats went from a controlling majority of 257 seats in the House of Representatives to a minority of 204, and lost the Senate.

I remember how shocked we were the morning after the votes were counted. I asked one of Clinton’s political advisors what had happened. "It was health care," he said, simply. (That advisor, by the way, is now in the Obama White House.)

Today's Republican battle plan is exactly the same as it was sixteen years ago. In fact, it's been the same since President Obama assumed office. They never were serious about compromise. They were serious only about regaining power. From the start, Republicans have remembered the lesson of 1994. Now, as they prepare to vote, House Dems should remember the lesson as well.

By Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written 15 books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's also co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism."

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