Clinton Targets Middle Class in Bid to Sell Health Reform : Politics: He takes the battle for universal coverage on the road. At a rally, he makes populist appeal to those ‘who have played by the rules.’


In the end, President Clinton is reaching back to the beginning.

As his push to guarantee universal health insurance nears its critical final tests in Congress, he is returning to the message of middle-class populism that powered his presidential campaign but has been obscured by other controversies since he took office.

At a rally here Friday, Clinton evoked a campaign mantra and framed his struggle for universal health insurance as a battle to guarantee fairness for average families who “have played by the rules.”

“The politicians have it. The wealthy have it. The poor have it. If you go to jail you can get it. Only the middle class can lose it,” he told an enthusiastic crowd pressed into a sweltering mass outside the county courthouse under a heavy blue and gray sky.


Clinton’s rhetoric--with its subtle stoking of middle-class resentments against Washington, the poor and the rich--represents a kind of political jujitsu. It is a calculated effort to co-opt the anti-Washington, anti-tax sentiments that opponents have stoked to weaken public support for Clinton’s vision of health care reform. It suggests that the health care end game largely will be a battle of dueling resentments--with opponents attempting to inflame suspicion of government and proponents of universal coverage attempting to convince the middle class that anything less will leave them the losers.

“Under the guise of saying we’re making progress on health care,” Clinton declared, “I don’t want to see us pass a bill that will one more time give more help to the poor, raise middle-class insurance rates and leave more (middle-class) people . . . without insurance.”

After making his pitch to the middle class, Clinton flew to Philadelphia as the headliner at two high-dollar fund-raisers for the state Democratic Party and Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford, who is facing a difficult reelection fight. At one event, 60 supporters paid $10,000 a head to mingle with the President. At the second, 250 paid $2,500 apiece.

Clinton’s earlier appearance in Greensburg seemed almost a flashback to his campaign, in atmospherics as much as in rhetoric. In a scene reminiscent of his celebrated bus tours two summers ago, the narrow road leading from the airport in nearby Latrobe was lined with families waving flags and signs of encouragement. The crowd at the rally, many of them union members from nearby communities, was bombarded before and after Clinton’s speech with blasting rock music from Fleetwood Mac and INXS.

At the speech, there were testimonials from average Americans: dairy farmer Louise Mastowski and Lynn Hicks, a mother of five, who both lost their health insurance and faced financial and emotional strains as a result. And there was Clinton himself, seemingly invigorated by the campaign atmosphere as he stripped off his coat and served up unvarnished attacks on his critics--including some in the audience who held up signs criticizing his plan.

“Every time we try to cover all the middle-class working people in the country . . . the same crowd got up with the same arguments and said this is socialism, this is rationing, this is government taking over the health care system,” he said, leaning across the podium and stabbing the air with his finger.


To those who contend that health reform would impose rationing of medical care, Clinton said, the experience of the two women without insurance showed that the United States already engages in rationing by denying access to millions.

“You tell me how you can justify in the United States of America rationing health care to a (woman) like Louise . . . how you can justify rationing health care to a fine woman and her husband and their five children,” he said.

Clinton’s words were aimed precisely at people like Janice Stanko, an accountant for a retail firm who drove 25 miles from Connellsville with her two sisters to hear the speech. All three women now have health insurance. But all worry that it could be taken away.

To Stanko, the prospect seemed like a vicious circle: She said she worries that an illness serious enough to prevent her from working also could cause her to lose her job and insurance, leaving her vulnerable to huge medical costs. “You can’t afford to pay for the coverage you need if you can’t work because you’re sick,” she said.

What she wants, she said, is guaranteed insurance that would cover her until she is old enough to be eligible for Medicare. But, like her sisters, she is unsure how to pay for such a guarantee and whether it makes sense to require employers to buy insurance for their employees. In their earnest confusion, they seemed to embody the ambivalence and hesitancy that Clinton is trying to slice through by presenting the choice facing Congress as one of fundamental fairness to the middle class.

For all Stanko’s uncertainty, on one point she was firm: She wants Congress to do something this year to ease her fears. “I wish I had the answers,” she said. “But that’s why we pay those guys--to come up with the answers.”