WASHINGTON -- Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole demonstrated his acute political antenna over the weekend with a television comment on the Clinton administration's failure to submit its formal plan for universal health-care coverage to Congress, even as first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and others are busy explaining it on Capitol Hill.
"I can't believe they're having hearings on a plan that nobody has seen, and we may not see for another 30 days," Dole said on NBC's "Meet the Press" show. "We ought to be able to look at it line by line, word by word, page by page, so we can start asking questions and making judgments."
While the president, his wife and others in the administration have been inundating the country with speeches and news-media briefings about the specifics of the grandiose health-care package, it is true that Congress still awaits formal submission. The reason is that the administration has not yet worked out all aspects of the critical question of financing, in terms that spell out precisely how much various categories of Americans will have to pay, and how.
This can be the Achilles' heel of the whole plan, as Dole well knows in hinting that Clinton might be trying to sell a pig in a poke. Republican critics have already focused on financing to suggest either that Clinton has not really thought through the tremendous costs involved, or that he is trying to hoodwink the public and Congress on the notion that cuts in Medicare and Medicaid administrative costs can take care of most of the price tag for the very ambitious new direction he is charting.
That vulnerability is what Democratic Sens. Pat Moynihan of New York and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska warned about in their earlier rather pointed observations about the Clinton claims of big savings through reform. Moynihan labeled the claims "fantasy" and Kerrey said that Clinton had better level with the voters on the costs and not back away from calling for sacrifice where it was necessary.
Ever since Clinton announced his health-care plan, Republicans in Congress have been scrambling to obtain a toehold on what may be the most attractive and certainly the most far-reaching social legislative initiative since Medicare, or even Social Security.
Rather than digging in their heels and simply crying "socialized medicine" -- as a few Neanderthals continue to do -- many congressional Republicans have been getting together on their own proposals. All of them fall far short of the central Clinton requirement that employers provide coverage for all of their workers, but the Republicans do recognize that Clinton has struck a responsive chord with the public that requires them politically to offer alternatives.
Before any of these alternatives can get a reading, however, the Republicans have to shoot some big holes in the Clinton balloon, and the administration's foot-dragging on spelling out the financing of its plan is giving them an easy target.
In retrospect, the White House may have been better served to have waited longer on its health-care blitz until it had the full package, including all the financing, ready to go.
But the political reality was that the president desperately needed a big idea, and a very visible, high-profile campaign behind it, to pull himself out of the hole he had dug for himself with various missteps and gaffes in his first six months in the Oval Office.
By indicating early that Hillary Clinton's task force would be producing the much-awaited health-care reform package by summer, and then failing to meet that original timetable, the president risked the impression that he was adrift on this central initiative of his new administration.
And so he moved ahead, with his own speech to Congress on health care and then the dispatch of his well-informed and articulate wife to Capitol Hill to inform, and dazzle, the good legislators.
Much of what has been achieved so far, however, can be undone if the White House dawdles much longer over the specifics of where the money will come from to pay for the Clinton plan -- and gives the Republicans more time to sow public doubts.