Obamacare: Bill Clinton vs. Obama argument ignores similarities

President Obama attends former President Clinton's Global Initiative event in September. Clinton's healthcare proposal, made shortly after his 1992 election, didn't get as far as Obama's, dying on Capitol Hill before passage.
(Allan Tannenbaum / Pool Photo / Getty Images)

Republicans were working overtime Wednesday to force Democrats to choose: Were they with President Obama on healthcare, or were they with former President Clinton?

The purported choice was prompted by Clinton’s assertion in an interview Tuesday that Obama should make sure that Americans can keep their current health insurance plans even if that requires corrections to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. (Not mentioned by Republicans was Clinton’s other statement in the interview, that “we’re better off with this law than without it.”)

“Who does @RepGaramendi stand with: @billclinton or @BarackObama?” the California Republican Party’s state director, Clinton Soffer, asked Wednesday via Twitter, in seven iterations for seven different targeted Democratic representatives.

Soffer was pursuing an angle laid out by House Speaker John A. Boehner, the party’s highest ranking representative in Washington.

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“I applaud President Clinton for joining the bipartisan call for President Obama to keep his promise to the American people,” Boehner said in a statement. “These comments signify a growing recognition that Americans were misled when they were promised that they could keep their coverage under President Obama’s healthcare law.

“President Clinton understood that governing in a divided Washington requires a focus on common ground, and I hope President Obama will follow the former president’s lead,” Boehner concluded.

Common ground was hardly the watchword of the Clinton years, what with two government shutdowns over partisan budget wrangling and one lengthy impeachment drama. But why quibble?

The real irony is that the closest approximation to Republican objections to Obama’s healthcare program was the objection to Clinton’s healthcare program. Clinton’s proposal, made shortly after his 1992 election, didn’t get as far as Obama’s, dying on Capitol Hill before passage.

But the push-back against both were the same: too complicated, too much big government, too threatening to the existing system (though members from both parties expressed support back then for coverage of preexisting conditions, something that didn’t actually happen until required by Obamacare).

Clinton in the early ‘90s and Obama in the present day had much the same problem: People readily agreed that the existing health insurance system was rife with problems. But familiarity bred both contempt and comfort; Americans were just as fearful of the politicians’ solutions.

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The current controversy over the cancellation of policies that don’t pass muster under the Obamacare rules — those were the policies Clinton said should be honored — goes directly to a major controversy in the Clinton years. One of the key battering rams against the Clinton-era proposal were ads paid for by the insurance industry that featured Harry and Louise, the presumably middle American couple stewing over medical bills at the kitchen table, ruing what had been lost to them.

“This was covered by our old plan,” Louise laments.

“Oh, yeah, that was a good one, wasn’t it,” Harry replies.

“Having choices we don’t like is no choice at all,” says Louise.

“If they choose …” Harry says.

“… We lose,” finishes Louise.


Clinton and Obama have had a wary relationship in the past, particularly during the conflict between the current president and the past president’s wife, Hillary, during the 2008 Democratic campaign.

For all past sensitivities, Clinton has often been Obama’s most eloquent defender, in part because even with all the tumult he represents, Clinton has maintained something of a hold on the American heart that the cerebral Obama has not sought or achieved. The former president brought down the house at the 2012 Democratic convention with his praise of Obama’s first term, including the passage of the healthcare measure.

And while gossip flew Tuesday about whether Clinton’s healthcare remarks were meant to open old wounds, or distance Obamacare from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s prospective presidential effort in 2016, the reality is the political impetus for Bill Clinton is to help, not hinder. As the underdog who upset a sitting president to win election, he understands more than most that the odds of a party winning three terms in a row are iffy, historically, as voters feed their internal need to shake things up.

The opposing party has an even larger opening to flip the White House if a domestic disaster — say, the foundering of the administration’s key policy — is happening at the same time.

Twitter: @cathleendecker