In his struggle to change the nation’s health care system, Barack Obama again faces certain obstacles that almost stopped his amazing march to the presidency. Aside from the Washington chattering class and the right-wing media, which always oppose progressive reform, Mr. Obama is losing his grip on the middle class and working families in swing states. He is losing Democratic senators and members of Congress in places like Florida and Arkansas. He is losing the propaganda war with his professorial style of explanation.
So perhaps he should stop trying to walk this treacherous path alone. Perhaps the time has come, if it isn’t already too late, to look for a companion who went here before, and fell. Perhaps he ought to ask for help from Bill Clinton.
The current president and his Democratic predecessor are not exactly close, even now, despite the presence of Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Obama cabinet. The friction burns of the 2008 primary campaign never completely healed, despite efforts on both sides. And the idea of bringing on the president, whose health care reform failed so dramatically, as an advocate for the Obama plan may seem counterintuitive even if they were best friends forever.
But Mr. Clinton remains popular and credible in precisely the places where the president is suffering politically—and he could achieve traction with the same Democrats who see no cost in undermining the Obama administration. Moreover, he has a capacity to communicate complex ideas in plain terms that would serve Mr. Obama well at this perilous moment.
If the president asked Mr. Clinton to help, which he has not done so far, that assistance could come in two distinct forms. First, the former president could start calling politicians like Mike Ross, the Democrat from rural Prescott, Ark., who serves as the health care spokesman for the Blue Dogs in the House, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who is among the most troublesome Democrats in the Senate. He could remind them how their party lost the majority in 1994, partly due to its inability to fulfill his promise of health care reform, and ask them to imagine what life would be like in the minority again. He might even ask them whether they want to be remembered in history as the rump faction that ruined the hopes represented by Mr. Obama.
Such moral and practical admonitions won’t work alone, however, which is why the former president should also speak out publicly. So far, he has said little about the health care issue, and then only when asked—but he has consistently said the right things. Last month, The New York Times quoted him saying that he hoped the Obama plan would pass. Not only are the political circumstances more favorable (or at least they seemed so in June), but, he added, the Obama plan is better in certain respects than his plan was.
“I hope they won’t give up on this public option,” he said.
In short, Mr. Clinton can be relied upon to stay on message.
The simple fact is that regardless of any lingering rivalry, the past president and the present one share precisely the same objectives—and the same adversaries. The ugly campaign to ruin Mr. Obama is taking on much the same tone as the crusade against the Clintons, with falsification and hysteria as its hallmarks. The authors of those slurs are hoping to bring down not only Mr. Obama but the Democrats in Congress as well.
Urging the Republicans to go for “the kill” this year, in his usual crude style, is William Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor who served as the ringleader of right-wing opposition to the Clinton plan in 1994. Backed by the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical lobby, the Republicans are creating yet another misleading campaign of fear to thwart reform.
So it is long past time for the president to harness Mr. Clinton’s extraordinary explanatory and political skills on behalf of the most important domestic goal of their party. More than a gesture or a tactic, reaching out to his former adversary would show the seriousness and spirit that Mr. Obama will need in order to win.
Joe Conason is writing a book about Bill Clinton’s post-presidency for Simon & Schuster.