Obama accused of demagoguing for anti-Clinton mailer
Nick Juliano
Published: Friday February 1, 2008

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Barack Obama's presidential campaign is mailing out a flyer attacking Hillary Clinton's healthcare plan in ways that recall infamous advertisements from the health insurance industry launched against her previous ill-fated universal healthcare effort.

The mailer, which features a "Harry and Louise"-like couple worried about being forced to buy health insurance, incensed a Clinton adviser enough to compare it to "Nazis marching through Skokie, Illinois." The campaign quickly distanced itself from the analogy from Len Nichols, a health policy expert who has advised Clinton and other candidates on their proposals.

Friday afternoon, a few hours after the call, Nichols released a statement apologizing for the comparison.

"Today my passion overwhelmed me. I chose an analogy that was wholly inappropriate. I am deeply sorry for any offense that my unfortunate comments may have caused," Nichols said in a statement sent to reporters by the New America Foundation, where he works. "I made unfortunate comments that do not accurately reflect my bipartisan conviction, political philosophy, or most importantly, my opinions about Senator Obama and his historic campaign for the United States presidency.ď

Nichols went out to say he was not "affiliated nor a surrogate for the Clinton campaign, or any other campaign," although he has consulted the New York senator and several other current and former candidates.

The Obama mailer, which the Clinton campaign traced to mailboxes in North Dakota and Alaska, shows a young couple sitting at a table, appearing to puzzle over a stack of bills. "Hillary's plan forces everyone to buy insurance, even if you can't afford it," the headline reads.

The mailer, and subsequent response, came a day after the two candidates appeared together in a strikingly civil debate at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles. Despite the friendly tone, though, Clinton and Obama's healthcare proposals were the most fiercely contested topic of the debate.

Clinton's campaign organized a conference call with reporters, during which Nichols and other advisers rebutted the Obama mailer, a copy of which was obtained by Politico's Ben Smith and can be viewed here (.pdf). The 1994 Harry and Louise ads were seen as central in defeating former Clinton's healthcare plan, accusing it of trying to create an expensive, unwieldy federal bureaucracy.

"I am personally outraged at the picture used in this mailing," said Nichols, of the New America Foundation, a leading supporter of mandatory insurance, according to Smith. Nichols called it a "Harry and Louise evocation." "It is as outrageous as having Nazis march through Skokie, Ill.," Nichols said. "I just find it disgusting that this kind of imagery is being used to attack the only way to get to universal coverage."

Clinton communications director Howard Wilson said at the end of the call that the Nazi comparison was inappropriate, according to several reports.

Obama adviser David Axelrod told Smith the campaign chose a "standard" image to illustrate the mailer, and he defended citing the Daily Iowan, a student newspaper, in attacking Clinton's plan. He called it a "respected newspaper," and noted similar objections from "plenty of other sources." The same paper served as the partial basis of an earlier campaign radio ad.

Obama says his plan would not force people to purchase health insurance, instead focusing on measures to make it more affordable.

Reaction to the mailer was fairly negative among liberal bloggers and commenters.

The American Prospect's Ezra Klein accused Obama of "demagoguing" universal healthcare, which the Illinois senator claims to support.

"In the end, his plan is not universal, does not attempt to be, and is probably less generous in its affordability provisions than Clinton's. And even so, I wouldn't really care, as it's still a pretty good plan, except that he's decided to respond to the inadequacies of his own policy by fear-mongering against not only better policy, but the type of policy he's probably going to have to eventually adopt," Klein writes. "It's very, very short-sighted."

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls the mailer "ugly" and "destructive"

"And [Obama] himself has conceded that he might have to penalize people who donít buy insurance until they need care," Krugman writes. "So this is just poisoning the well for health care reform. The politics of hope, indeed."

At Washington Monthly, Kevin Drum is slightly more reserved but says the mailer left a bad taste in his mouth.

"There's nothing odious or unfair about this mailer. It's perfectly normal hardball politics," he writes. "But it doesn't help the progressive cause on healthcare one whit. I sure wish Obama could figure out a better way to contrast himself with Hillary."