She has run almost nonstop for nearly nine months, and now, for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the finish line is so close she can almost touch it.
“She’s giddy,” said a top aide describing the First Lady’s mood. “It’s almost over.”
Since her health reform task force began its work last winter, Mrs. Clinton has carried most of the burden of the Administration’s most pressing domestic policy priority.
But tonight she will take her seat in the House gallery with former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, nationally known pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton and the Administration’s current Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, and watch her husband, the President, unveil the plan the Administration has developed.
At that moment, the burden will shift.
The proposal will still be the Clinton health care plan, but from now on, the Clinton in question will not be Hillary, but Bill.
None of this is to say that the First Lady will suddenly cease her work on the effort. Tuesday night, she gave an interview to NBC news. Tonight, when the President’s speech ends, she plans to appear on CBS, and for the next several weeks, she will be even more visible than she has been for the last nine months, as White House aides seek to dominate the first stage of the health care debate.
“There’s going to be tremendous curiosity in the country about what’s in this plan and what it does. People are going to be hungry for information,” said Clinton media adviser Mandy Grunwald.
Presidential advisers, including Mrs. Clinton, believe that a crucial error in the fight over the federal budget this year was the assumption by many Administration officials that when the plan was unveiled, the public had absorbed the President’s version of what the budget would do. To their dismay, they discovered that the public actually knew little of the plan and was ready, for that reason, to accept Republican characterizations of it.
This time, they say, will be different.
For at least the next month, the Clintons plan to make an almost continuous health care sales pitch. Mrs. Clinton’s role in it will begin next Tuesday when she appears as the leadoff witness for the start of congressional hearings on the plan.
But while Mrs. Clinton’s schedule will remain crowded, her role will have undergone a clear shift. From now on, says Melanne Verveer, a top aide to Mrs. Clinton, “she’ll become the chief spokesman for his plan. That’s the big difference.”
If the effort to develop a health care plan had collapsed amid intramural squabbling or been pronounced dead on arrival in Congress, there is no doubt that Hillary Clinton would have taken the blame for a process gone awry.
Indeed, when the President first appointed his wife to head the health care task force, the announcement was accompanied by a chorus predicting doom.
Hillary would be too ideological, and the project would fall victim to liberal pipe dreams, some predicted.
Others insisted she would alienate members of Congress unaccustomed to working with a First Lady on substantive issues. Some derided her as an amateur with knowledge of politics but none of the intricacies of health care economics, while others claimed she would wreck the chances for health reform by convening a panel of expert academics with no feel for political reality.
So far, none of the dire forecasts have come to pass. As members of Congress have trouped to briefings on the health care plan and Washington journalists, lobbyists and policy experts have dissected it, the Clinton proposal has won generally favorable reviews. Most importantly, over the last several months, a solid bipartisan majority--at least in the Senate--appears to have formed around the key principle of government action to guarantee health care coverage for all Americans.
Mrs. Clinton’s critics, including some within the Administration, continue to worry about her role in the process as it proceeds. On the budget, said one senior Administration official, the President “was willing to make whatever compromises he had to (to) get the votes he needed. Now, he’s going to have someone else second-guessing him. It could be very difficult.”
For example, this official noted, embedded in the health plan are a number of new spending programs designed to channel more money to public health and preventive health programs--such as childhood immunizations--that have been a priority for Mrs. Clinton. The program also proposes a strong government role in setting caps on insurance premiums and budgets to control the growth of health care costs.
Those new spending programs and new regulatory powers are certain to be targeted by Republicans and Democratic conservatives in Congress, and at least some Administration officials believe Mrs. Clinton may be less willing to let them go than her husband would.
But those arguments, whether they develop or not, are for the future. For now, as the White House scrambles to put the finishing touches on the text for tonight’s speech, the First Lady and her aides are taking some time to enjoy their success.
A recent poll by the Gallup organization for USA Today and CNN showed a majority of Americans approve of Mrs. Clinton’s role in health reform, although notably, men were far more sharply divided than women. Surveys done for the White House also show Mrs. Clinton’s popularity on the rise.
And although Clinton pollster Stanley B. Greenberg concedes that there are still those who harbor an intense dislike for the First Lady, overall her role appears to have bolstered the White House effort. For a public still uncertain exactly what Bill Clinton stands for, “there’s a sense of seriousness of purpose that her involvement communicates. They know from her appointment that this is not a side issue,” Greenberg said.
“She has executed the responsibilities the President gave her,” said Verveer. “Nobody can say there was an issue that hasn’t been fully examined or that it hasn’t been a full-court press.”