Clinton's TV ad on health zaps would-be supporters


WASHINGTON -- We may be missing something here, but the White House seems to be following a peculiar advertising strategy in trying to win approval for a health care reform bill.

The strategy consists entirely of a 30-second television commercial complaining that some members of Congress are trying to do "the Washington thing," rather than providing "the real thing" -- meaning universal health insurance coverage. "Call Congress," the announcer says, "tell them you want what they have -- guaranteed health care, the real thing."

The commercial was prepared by media consultant Mandy Grunwald under the direction of White House political advisers but is being run under the auspices of the Democratic National Committee.

The most obviously curious thing about the spot is that it is being run only here in Washington, a strategy that seems to allow only two possible inferences, neither of which makes any sense.

The most unlikely is that all these members of Congress who aren't willing to do "the real thing" represent people in suburban Maryland and Virginia in the metropolitan area exposed to the spot. But that doesn't scan. The holdouts come from all over the country.

So the other possibility is that the spot is aimed only at the recalcitrant ones among the 535 members of Congress. Grunwald points out that "most of the people who make the decisions" do live here and presumably would be exposed to the commercial on local stations or cable outlets. But there must be a better way to drive the message home.

The message, moreover, is one that may cause some unease among members of Congress sensitive to the complaint that they already have guaranteed and comprehensive health insurance coverage for themselves and their families. "That's a point a lot of people have made," says Grunwald, including President Clinton himself in his State of the Union speech last winter.

But it wouldn't be surprising if some Democrats were put off by being zinged by their own party when they already are worried about being perceived by their constituents as privileged incumbents during the midterm election campaign already under way. They may wonder why the Democratic National Committee's resources aren't being used in a more conventional if prosaic way -- to zap Republicans.

As a practical matter, the wisdom of this White House approach probably doesn't matter. The opponents of Clinton's health care proposal -- most prominently the Health Insurance Association of America, sponsor of the "Harry" and "Louise" commercials -- already have won the contest for public opinion. Polls agree across the board that more Americans oppose, rather than support, the Clinton plan.

Indeed, the commercials had been so effective that a few weeks ago then Chairman Dan Rostenkowski of the House Ways and Means Committee considered it necessary to negotiate a truce with HIAA under which the industry stopped running the television spots in exchange for concessions in the committee's version of the bill.

But now, with Rostenkowski no longer in a position to offer guarantees, the HIAA is planning to run another round of Harry and Louise commercials here and in 10 states around the country.

And in competition with Americans in 10 states again being told "there must be a better way," a 30-second spot on "the real thing" running only in Washington is pretty pale stuff. In fact, the notion of the fate of health care reform being decided by competing commercials is in itself bizarre at this point, when three House and two Senate committees are wrangling over details in trying to find legislation that can enlist a majority.

If the White House really wants to conduct a campaign for the hearts and minds of the voters, the answer might seem to be to put President Clinton himself on television to make the case. When he outlined the plan last September, the response was decidedly favorable. But the polls suggest that the president doesn't have the standing with the public right now to make a persuasive case.

Despite the overall negative attitude toward the Clinton plan, most Americans still favor universal coverage and putting some of the responsibility for funding it on employers. But trying to find the formula is a delicate business, and a television commercial about the real thing isn't really relevant.

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