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Clinton the professor teaches health reform


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton apparently intends to schmooze the electorate into submission. The question is whether his nonstop sales pitch for his health care program and budget priorities can overcome the skepticism abroad in the land.

From the moment Congress left town for its year-end recess, Clinton has been selling in one public appearance or interview after another. If there is a reporter in this capital who hasn't had a chance to question him, that reporter isn't really trying.

The quintessential example of the Clinton technique was on display, however, in his trip to Bryn Mawr College to attend a conference on entitlements called by Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky.

The president spent more than two hours there, first giving a lecture supplemented by color charts on the nature of the nation's fiscal problems, then presiding over a panel discussion centered on health care reform.

The Republicans are complaining predictably that the whole thing was a political exercise. And in one sense they are obviously right. Clinton agreed to appear at the conference after Margolies-Mezvinsky, a freshman Democrat from an affluent Philadelphia suburb, changed her mind last spring and gave him the final vote he needed to pass his tax-deficit plan, thus outraging many of her constituents.

But Clinton seized the opportunity to do what he likes to do best -- talk endlessly, articulately and persuasively about the need for health care reform. The connection to the conference on entitlements, he made clear, is the fact that the rise in their cost is attributable largely to higher outlays for the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

The president was clearly in his element playing the college professor lecturing to a large audience of freshmen about the basics of the problem, then listening with at least the appearance of patience to the views of representatives of private hospitals, the health insurance industry and local government as well as a supporting cast of official panelists that included Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services, and Sen. Harris Wofford, a Democrat who won his seat in a special election in 1991 by putting heavy stress on the need for better health care.

Clinton's fondness for playing the policy wonk has been evident all along. No president of recent times, except perhaps Jimmy Carter, ever approached Clinton's knowledge of the details of federal programs and the nuances of federal policy. And Carter, unlike Clinton, never had the patience to schmooze with the voters or anyone else for hours on end. Carter's attitude was that if a proposal made sense, it should prevail of its own weight.

By contrast, Clinton understands the need for a sales job in the face of the attack his health care plan can expect from many quarters. The country needs to have a discussion of the issue, he told his Bryn Mawr audience, "without rhetorical bombs flying in the air from the left and the right." If Margolies-Mezvinsky hadn't cast that controversial key vote, he said, "we'd still be back in Washington throwing mud balls at each other."

In fact, another exchange of those mud balls is quite likely when Congress returns next month and the serious debate over health care begins.

Already there are those on the far right who insist that there is nothing wrong with the existing system that cannot be fixed with minor tinkering, other conservatives who are screaming "socialized medicine," a coalition of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans promoting a compromise to ease the pain on the health insurance industry, liberals campaigning for a single-payer system that would make it essentially a government operation.

Reconciling these divergent views -- or at least enough to put together a majority -- is not going to be an easy task. Nor is the debate likely to be thoughtful enough to make it easy for Americans to decide where the truth lies. So Clinton is trying to use his considerable skills as a teacher to define the debate in his own terms.

It is far too soon to guess how much success he may enjoy. What is already clear is that the president is doing what Bill Clinton most likes to do -- talking endlessly and earnestly about public questions to anyone willing to listen.

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