When all is negotiable, nothing is

YOU GET the impression the Clintons wish somebody -- anybody -- would step in and take this health-care thing off their hands. The press' polite way of saying this is that both President and Mrs. Clinton have "signaled flexibility."

With 100 lobbies laboring for clients whose devotion to health care would be the very model of Christian selflessness if only the beastly profit motive would slink away and die, the Clintons must feel some of the loneliness Custer experienced when Sitting Bull turned up.


Their frequent invitations for everybody to jump in and help revise their health program suggest an alarming lack of self-assurance by political standards, which are not much different from the standards of professional prizefighting.

Custom in both calls for the pre-event warm-up oratory to dwell on the agony to be inflicted on the opposition, no matter how bleak the inner despair of the chump doing the talking.


The rule is that you don't offer the other guy your chin before you step into the ring. Doing so in Washington is especially dangerous. Politicians who start by announcing that almost everything is negotiable are fooling themselves, perhaps fatally, if they think they are "signaling flexibility."

In Washington the signal is most likely to be read as meaning, "I'm just a pussycat -- kick me."

(Now, now, cat lovers, I'm just speaking poetically. Neither Newt Gingrich nor Bob Dole would dream of kicking a cat even if it weighed 220 pounds, played the saxophone and meowed with an Arkansas accent.)

My study of their health-care program makes me sympathetic with the Clintons' apparent wish to hand it off to strangers. Its complexities would make a tax lawyer beg for mercy. The simplest accounts leave you overwhelmed.

For instance: One object is to reduce the hours of bureaucratic paperwork with which doctors, hospitals, patients, bill collectors and insurers are afflicted.

"Simplicity!" That is one of the battle cries. Mr. Clinton sounded it persuasively six weeks ago when he stood before Congress and held up a red, white and blue card no bigger than your credit card. This little card, he suggested, would make the splendor of American medicine available bureaucracy-free to all.

Yet six weeks later, the bill sent to Congress was 1,342 pages long and contained some 240,000 words. It knocked the hope right out of me. It was such a typically, depressingly U.S. federal government exercise.

It's terrible to agree with know-nothings who say the federal government makes a hopeless mess of everything it puts its hand to, because it doesn't always, but here surely was the beginning of the making of a truly preposterous mess.


People who need 1,342 pages of legal prose merely to start this ball rolling are never going to reduce any problem to the size of a credit card, are they?

Ideally the Clintons need a simple program, a sort of unified-field theory of the health care universe, which the non-lawyer, non-Congress, non-lobby part of America could understand. On such a program the Clintons could signal inflexibility and fight with passion.

Such a program might be like the Canadian single-payer program. Mr. Clinton, however, is dedicated in all things to finding the middle in American politics, and the Canadian program was doomed from the start with the label "liberal."

Groping for the middle, Mr. Clinton seems to have ended with a plan true to the current religion about the inevitable social benignity that flows from the workings of private business.

The United States is now so conservative that the middle is located slightly to the right of the middle of the Chamber of Commerce. In seeking it, Bill Clinton seems to have mated a health care plan and an insurance company preservation plan.

My study of all this, I confess, has been very casual, so I may be all wet. Since the Clintons say everything is negotiable and Washington wisdom agrees it will take a year or more to reach the great compromise, total immersion in 1,342-page documents destined for obsolescence seems pointless just now.


Mr. Micawber believed something good would turn up. Maybe it will. In the end, though, Dickens deported Mr. Micawber to Australia.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.