A Democratic Casualty of Clinton Care Thinks Obama Has It ‘About Right’

The man who, more than anyone else, spurred the last great push for health care reform—an effort that ended in policy failure and the Republican revolution of 1994—was back in the Capitol on Wednesday night to hear President Obama tell Congress why his own reform attempt can and must end differently.

“I was joking last night that the banner that I carried into the Senate was the tattered banner that let Rick Santorum send me out,” Harris Wofford, the former Pennsylvania senator who lost his seat to Santorum in that ’94 tide, said in an interview yesterday.

He’s been out of politics for 15 years, but the arc of Wofford’s three-year run in the Senate early last decade captures well the immense promise and crushing disappointment that marked the Democrats’ last go-round with health care.

It all started, morbidly enough, on April 4, 1991, when a helicopter collided with a small airplane over a schoolyard in the Philadelphia suburbs, killing two children on the ground and everyone on board—including John Heinz, Pennsylvania’s popular third-term Republican senator.

Democratic Governor Robert Casey, after an unwieldy month-long search that included a rejection from Lee Iacocca, ultimately decided to appoint Wofford, then 65, the state’s little-known Labor and Industry secretary who had come of age politically as a civil rights activist, aide to John F. Kennedy, and a founder of the Peace Corps.

Wofford was supposed to lose miserably in the November special election. Pennsylvania hadn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1962 and the Republicans had chosen a dream candidate—Richard Thornburgh, a former two-term governor then serving as the first President Bush’s attorney general. It was a short campaign and the first poll showed Wofford 47 points behind.

With the economy stuck in a recession and popular anxiety rising, Wofford declared himself “the chief prosecutor” of Bush’s domestic policies. But it was on health care—an issue that hadn’t featured prominently in Democratic campaigns—that he broke through with what remains a populist classic: “The Constitution says that if you are charged with a crime, you have a right to a lawyer. But it’s even more fundamental that if you’re sick, you should have the right to a doctor.”

The line, which Wofford says was given to him by an ophthalmologist he met on the campaign trail, resonated powerfully, and by Election Day, it wasn’t even close: 55 to 45 percent for Wofford. It was a wake-up call to the rest of the nation—about Bush’s vulnerability and the public’s appetite for health care reform.

“Thornburgh was asked what happened and he said, ‘I was the canary that was sent into the mine and didn’t come back.’ That rumbling of discontent was deep—deeper than people perceived,” Wofford recalled.

“Until I had that victory, people weren’t seeing that as the big issue. And [Bill] Clinton called me the day after I was elected and said, ‘Should I meet with this Ragin’ Cajun (James Carville, who ran Wofford’s campaign) and consider him for our campaign?’ Until my victory, he hadn’t settled on health care as a big campaign issue.”

Clinton, who considered placing Wofford on the Democratic ticket with him in the summer of 1992, ended up making reform a central part of his winning campaign, and after being sworn in, dove in quickly. But instead of leaving it to the Democratic Congress to come up with a blueprint, he deputized his wife to craft a plan with her own White House team. That, Wofford believes, was the beginning of the end.

“The legislators, most importantly with Pat Moynihan (then the Senate Finance Committee chairman), felt left out,” he said. “And a White House person, as you may remember, was quoted saying, ‘We’re not worried about Senator Moynihan. We can roll him over.’ Or something to that effect. And Moynihan doesn’t forget things like that.”

The Clinton White House was also too inflexible—especially as it became clear that major chunks of the Clinton plan lacked anything near the kind of support they’d need to clear Congress.

“They tried to cover everything,” he said. “And they said this was our one chance in a century and we had to do it all. If it had come through, it might have been a tremendous step forward, but I thought it was too much. And I was too simple.”

Republicans, locked out of the White House for the first time in 12 years, were quick to pounce. Wofford remembers Bob Dole, then the Senate’s Republican leader, quietly floating the idea of an incremental, compromise plan with Moynihan.

“[Moynihan] came to me finally and he said, ‘Dole sadly says that his colleagues have tasted blood and they think they can bring the president down on this.’ [Dole] couldn’t even get his own bill budged from his caucus,” he recalled.

By the end of the summer of 1994, the reform effort was dead, with the G.O.P. dancing on the corpse all the way through the November elections, when they won back the Senate and House for the first time in decades. Wofford, who lost to Santorum by 2 points, was only one of countless Democratic casualties.

“The trouble was, after big promises, nothing came out,” he said. “If we had had even the Children’s Health Insurance Program (enacted in Clinton’s second term) as a Step 1, which is the final compromise some of us were proposing, I think the victory for the Republicans, if they had it, would have been far less. If we just had something good to show for it. We had nothing. It was just a fiasco.”

Despite some recent ominous signs, though, Wofford doesn’t see history repeating itself in 2009 and 2010. For one thing, he says, Obama has learned the lessons of Clinton’s failure well. Democrats grumbled all summer about Obama’s willingness to farm out most of the work to Congress and his reluctance to engage forcefully in the Congressional debate, but after his speech this week, the wisdom of that approach is now clear.

“I think he’s timed it about right,” Wofford said. “He let this come to a boil. I don’t know that if he’d gotten actively involved earlier he would have had the impact I think he’s having right now. And you need a kind of crisis—the iron has to be hot in order to shape it.”

Wofford is optimistic that Democrats, maybe even with the support of a few Republicans, will ultimately pass a plan. He admits that final plan will probably be less than ideal (especially with the public option subject to intense negotiations) but he makes a comparison to a movement he was once a part of.

“It was a tremendous blow to many key leaders in the civil rights movement that the judgment was made that the voting rights power was not going to get through the Senate and was dropped in the early stage of the shaping of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. [Lyndon] Johnson was basically indicating that it can’t be done now … but everybody knew that the crucial voting rights bill was still on the agenda.”

Sure enough, it was, with the Voting Rights Act following a year later. Something similar, says Wofford, will probably happen with health care: “The only thing I disagreed with the president’s speech on was the idea that this will be the last president who deals with this.”

Still very active at 83 and living in Washington, Wofford spent 21 months “pretty much night and day” campaigning for Obama in 2007 and 2008 and says that “I have now the president who’s closest to what I’ve been hoping for my whole life.” He made the trip to Capitol to hear the speech on Wednesday, and he’s still in touch with many of his old colleagues—which is partly where his optimism comes from.

“I know the spirit of the Democrats that I have talked to in the Senate,” he said, “and it’s to come together with a bill.” A Democratic Casualty of Clinton Care Thinks Obama Has It ‘About Right’