WASHINGTON — Shock and awe. That's what survivors of the Clinton-era health care collapse are feeling as President Barack Obama's overhaul legislation wobbles in Congress.
Aides who shaped Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton's 1990s plan to cover all Americans, then labored in vain to pass it into law, are adamant that the Democrats can't afford another health care disaster. But they're divided on whether scaling down Obama's plan would be an acceptable solution.
The Clintonistas – now in think tanks, universities, serving in the Obama administration or lobbying – are a potent voice in the furious debate within the Democratic Party over how to salvage health care. Listened to because they're the veterans of the last health care policy war, they carry the scars of intense striving reduced to utter futility.
"If Bill Clinton couldn't get it done, and Barack Obama can't do it, no Democrat will ever try again," said economist Len Nichols, health policy director at the New America Foundation. A Clinton White House health budget aide, Nichols has been operating as an unofficial adviser to lawmakers and administration officials wrestling with details of the current legislation.
"History is written by the victors, not the vanquished," said Chris Jennings, congressional liaison for then-first lady Hillary Clinton during the 1990s debate. "Failure would serve as the ultimate judgment as to whether this effort was worth doing." Jennings, now a lobbyist, replaced Ira Magaziner, principal architect of the Clinton plan, as White House health policy adviser.
The former first lady, now secretary of state, says "it's really hard" watching the travails of Obama's plan. Hillary Clinton has been giving advice, as requested, to lawmakers in Congress and administration officials, and says she's still hopeful. "I'm not sure that this last chapter has been written," she told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday.