It's Health Care, Stupid


If President Clinton did not have health care reform as a daily subplot in the Whitewater melodrama, he would really be immersed in a sea of troubles. Health care is the issue that drives this administration, gives it purpose and, at the end of the day, may provide a legislative triumph shortly before the November congressional elections.

Almost every day, the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton are out on the stump, proselyting on behalf of their elaborate plan for revising the nation's medical system. Town meetings, talk shows, rallies, photo ops galore -- these dominate the White House schedule while Capitol Hill is abuzz with half a dozen hearings at a time.

Think what Mr. Clinton's plight would be if he did not have such a diversion from Whitewater. His foreign policy is going about as smoothly as a frothing mountain stream. The economy is last year's victory, and no one in the White House has any stomach for more tax hikes or spending cuts that could endanger the recovery. Welfare reform, supposedly next in line after health care, is a warmed-over Republican issue that could split the Democrats ideologically.

Truly, without health care, this presidency would be in search of a mission. The George Bush question -- just why did he want to be president except for the honor of it -- would be resurrected.

Although the Clinton health care plan is currently losing favor with a confused public, the president seems to be calculating that congressional incumbents in both parties do not dare face the voters without first having passed a bill.

Even at the annual Gridiron dinner last weekend, the jokes were on reform opponents. Republican Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts spoofed his own party by forecasting the emergence of a GOP alternative called "the Gingrich, Chaffey, Gramm, Dole, Kemp, Buchanan, Robertson, Weld No-Crisis-Health-Care, Security Reform and Capital Gains Act." The president and his First Lady mocked the "Harry and Louise" TV commercials with a home video of their own. Playing the part of America's most perplexed TV couple, they discover the Clinton plan does not do away with sickness or death and chant in unison: "There's got to be a better way." "Paid for by the Coalition to Scare Your Pants Off," is the video's finale message.

We suspect that if pro-reform advocates paid to put the Clintons' "Harry and Louise" take-off on the airwaves, the anti-reform lobbies would be drowned in laughter. As it is, health care promoters have shelved the wonky idea of promoting a grassroots movement behind an issue that gets more confounding the more you know about it. Instead, they plan a TV blitz based on campaign-style polling. Health care's unforeseen role is to keep Whitewater from grabbing all the headlines.

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