In the afterglow of President Clinton's impassioned call for health-care reform, sour notes could be heard from some quarters -- Republicans complaining the proposal relies too much on government bureaucracy, industry warnings of "de facto price controls," yelps from small businesses still resisting the notion that every employer should participate. But overriding the reservations about the small print was a sense of optimism and relief.
At long last this country appears ready to come to grips with a complex social issue that had seemed impervious to change.
It was a heady moment for a president who has had a rough initiation into Washington power struggles. But no other battle in his young administration has carried such high stakes. Health-care reform is the one promise he made to the American people that he cannot break. He may fail and fail badly, but the bigger risk is not to try at all.
Mr. Clinton understands that. His reading of the American mood lent conviction and passion to his call to arms Wednesday night. Polls after the speech found his message resonated well with a majority of people who watched.
If the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton know the dangers of sitting still on health-care reform, they are not alone. As Rep. Michael L. Synar, D-Okla., noted, "Congressmen who don't get ahead of this debate are going to get run over."
Beyond feeling the heat, many members of Congress also sense this could be a historic opportunity. House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., indicated as much when he said, "This is the biggest bill that any of us has worked on in our congressional careers. . . . And I'm more optimistic about it than I've ever been."
That optimism is a tribute to the administration's success in pushing health-care reform to the top of the national agenda. As the president noted in his speech, change is difficult but it is necessary for survival. Reforming an industry that gobbles up almost one-sixth of the nation's economy is a daunting task, and it is a defining moment whenever change of that magnitude seems possible.
Security, simplicity, savings, choice, quality and responsibility -- those principles set forth by the president describe a destination, not a detailed road map. Another principle we would add to the mix is the overarching theme of fairness -- fairness to each American who needs health care but cannot now afford it as well as fairness to all the businesses that now participate in the health insurance system while many others opt out.
Principles don't substitute for the crucial details, but without guiding principles the details would never gel. Bring on the debate.