Health Care Initiative a Learning Moment for Clinton When she was first lady, Hillary Clinton was criticized for the way she handled her failed attempt to change health care policy. Now, she says, she has learned from her mistakes.
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Health Care Initiative a Learning Moment for Clinton

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Health Care Initiative a Learning Moment for Clinton

Health Care Initiative a Learning Moment for Clinton

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In about two months, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will begin choosing the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees. You might call it crunch time for the candidates. But for each of them, they've experienced something called crunch time long before, an important decision point in their past that may reveal something about how they would lead as president.

Today, NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, reports on Hillary Clinton's attempt to reform health insurance some 14 years ago.

MARA LIASSON: Hillary Clinton points to a lifetime of experience as an advocate first lady and senator as the basis of her bid for the presidency. But Sally Bedell Smith, who's written a new book about the Clintons called "For Love of Politics," says it's Hillary's White House years that are most illuminating.

Ms. SALLY BEDELL SMITH (Author, "For Love of Politics): There's nothing like looking at an individual and seeing how they operated in that pressure cooker of the White House, where every single decision had a consequence and every day was filled with stress. That's the real test.

LIASSON: And the biggest test for Hillary Clinton in the White House was health care reform. There have been thousands of pages written about the Clinton's ill-fated effort to provide universal health insurance coverage. How Hillary Clinton, as head of her husband's health care task force, designed an overly-complicated plan in secret, how she demonized her opponents and even her potential allies. But later on, once the plan was threatened with defeat, Mrs. Clinton made another, perhaps even more consequential decision - not to compromise with any of the alternative proposals that would have provided less than universal coverage.

Carl Bernstein is the author of "A Woman in Charge," a biography of Senator Clinton.

Mr. CARL BERNSTEIN (Author, "A Woman in Charge"): Bill Clinton writes in his memoir that perhaps he made a mistake by not intervening and going for one of these compromise plans. One of the things that surprised a lot of people about Hillary Clinton in the White House years was it turned out she had a tin ear, and it - she didn't have this instinct for compromise.

LIASSON: Sally Bedell Smith recalls one particular incident. Bill Clinton was in Boston in July of 1994, giving a speech to a group of governors. In response to a question, he said he might accept a plan that provided less than 100 percent coverage.

Ms. SMITH: Well, in no sooner he got off the podium that he got a call from Hillary in her office in the White House, and she said in fairly explicit profane terms, what are you doing? Come back to the White House and come to see me immediately. An on the next day, the president of the United States not only retracted his statement, but he apologized.

LIASSON: In September, at a candidate's debate in Hanover, New Hampshire, MSNBC moderator Tim Russert asked Senator Clinton about those missed opportunities to compromise.

(Soundbite of political debate)

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (Washington Bureau Chief, NBC; Debate Moderator): With the scaled-down bill that you have now, which is very similar to what Senator Chafee, a Republican, had back in 1993, your bill today could have passed back then, but you refused to compromise.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): Well, I don't think that's a fair reading. If you will remember, there was a decision made by the Republicans then that they would not support extending health care to every American.

LIASSON: It's impossible to know what might have happened if Hillary Clinton had compromised. And Carl Bernstein says it's easy to forget that the outcome wasn't only up to her.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: One of the things, though, that Hillary Clinton has been good about is understanding how virulent her opponents and enemies are and were. It's easy, in retrospect, to underestimate what that opposition was trying to do because Bob Dole was looking to run in 1996 for president, and he was not about to let a compromise health care plan pass.

LIASSON: Still, says David Gergen, who was a senior advisor on the Clinton White House at the time, the health care battle reveals a lot about Hillary Clinton's instincts.

Mr. DAVID GERGEN (Former Senior Advisor, Clinton Administration): There was an element of her personality and it had a rigidity about it. She had high aspirations. She thought she was in the right. If you persevered long enough, you could succeed.

LIASSON: Former Clinton White House chief of staff, Leon Panetta, who is supporting Senator Clinton's campaign, saw something that reminded him of the current occupant of the White House.

Mr. LEON PANETTA (Former Chief of Staff, Clinton Administration): I think that was kind of the attitude at the time, that somehow if you kind of held your ground, that you would be able to push things through. It was what I would call the George Bush problem that we often see today, you know? She herself, ultimately, understood that that was a mistake and, in many ways, she paid the price for not showing the willingness to compromise.

LIASSON: The stereotype of Hillary Clinton as combative and self-righteous is perhaps the greatest obstacle to her White House ambitions. One of the most impressive accomplishments of her campaign is how it's using the story of health care to change that stereotype. She's managed to transform the narrative of her disastrous attempt at health care reform into a story of redemption and growth. When she unveiled her new, much less radical plan in Iowa in September, she repeated her stock line - that she still has the scars to show for her earlier effort. But then, she added…

Sen. CLINTON: But I've also learned some valuable lessons that have shaped how I approach health care reform today.

LIASSON: She ticked them off. Make the plan clear and easy to understand. Do a lot of listening. But the most important may have been the lesson of humility and compromise.

Sen. CLINTON: I learned about how to build the national consensus you need to get health care passed. Having spent six years in the Senate, I know that fixing health care will require political will to get the votes we need. And it will take a movement for change, a solid national consensus for reform. And I will work to build that movement throughout my campaign and as your president. These are new times and this is a new plan.

LIASSON: But is it a new Hillary? How voters answer that question may determine whether she becomes president. Carl Bernstein answers yes. He believes Hillary Clinton has grown and changed.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Look, what is politics? Politics is the art of compromise. But what the great political figures, meaning the principled ones, have learned to do is to not compromise basic principles and yet, at the same time, to compromise on the way to getting those principles realize this policy. And I think that's what she has learned in the Senate.

LIASSON: David Gergen isn't sure.

Mr. GERGEN: I think as senator, she has shown much more of that quality that makes politics work, that reaching across the aisle, working with people of different points of view. Here's the jackpot question: What will she be like as president? We know that Hillary Clinton has presented a very different health care plan from the one that she presented back in '93 and '94. Her health care plan has changed. Has she changed as a national leader? That, to me, is one of the mysteries surrounding this campaign.

LIASSON: A mystery that will only be solved when and if Senator Clinton becomes President Clinton.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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