President Clinton is soaring in the polls today, but Republicans think they can knock him down simply by reminding voters the real Bill Clinton is a big-spending liberal who wants more government.
Exhibit A in the GOP case against Clinton is the tattered remnants of his failed attempt to overhaul America's health care system.Advisers to Sen. Bob Dole are urging the Republican presidential candidate to resurrect Clinton's health bill as evidence that early in his tenure the president leaned left.
"Voters have forgotten what kind of president this man started off to be," said Deborah Steelman, a Bush administration official helping the Dole campaign develop a health care strategy. "It's clear that if Republicans leave his current centrist stance unexamined, they can't win."
With the assistance of Dick Morris, the guru of triangulation politics, Clinton is running for re-election as a moderate who declared in his State of the Union address that the "era of big government is over."
But Republicans argue those claims don't jibe with Clinton's record, especially his year-long effort to guarantee health care to every American through bureaucratic purchasing cooperatives.
Drafted under the tutelage of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the bill threatened dramatic upheaval for every citizen and unknown consequences on one-seventh of the nation's economy. As the plan was scrutinized and the fractious debate wore on, the president's popularity ratings plummeted.
In a speech to party leaders Saturday, Dole vowed to remind voters of Clinton's earlier attempts to allow gays to serve in the military and to "nationalize the greatest health care system in the world."
The idea, say GOP strategists, is not to refight the health care debate of 1993-94, but to use it to make a larger point about Clinton's true nature.
But some observers say the health battle is old news that won't generate much voter interest. They also note that health care is a complicated subject with potential pitfalls for Dole, who offered his own health proposal in 1994 that provided subsidies to low-income families by cutting Medicare and Medicaid.
"The problem is it's ancient history at this point," said Joshua Wiener, a health analyst at the Urban Institute. "That was then, this is now. The health policy issues of today are dominated by Medicare and Medicaid."
And that, argues Republican Tom Scully, is one more reason why Dole should focus on Clinton's unpopular health bill.
"If I were the Dole camp, I would say, `Any Medicare debate we are going to lose,' " said Scully, a hospital lobbyist who worked in the Bush administration. "If you're going to get into a debate about health care, it should focus on Clinton's big government plan."
When Clinton unveiled his health plan on Sept. 22, 1993, in a joint session of Congress, many Americans agreed the health system was in crisis. At the time, 36 million Americans had no health coverage and millions more were underinsured. Clinton's proposal, drafted in secret by his wife and other experts, charged companies 80 percent of workers' health insurance and imposed price caps to keep costs down.
From the outset, special interests and many Republicans attacked the massive overhaul as government intrusion into an area best left to market forces. Clinton has since acknowledged the bill went "too far, too fast."
In the end, after a year of congressional debate, millions of dollars' worth of ads and several attempts to forge a bipartisan compromise, nothing happened.
When voters went to the polls in November 1994, they registered their disgust by voting Democrats out of office in droves.
Today, nearly three years after Clinton introduced his sweeping legislation, the status of America's health system remains mixed.
Judy Feder, a Georgetown University analyst who helped draft the Clinton bill, said many private firms have kept the lid on escalating health costs, but some of those reductions have meant fewer people covered, a reduction in benefits or more out-of-pocket costs to beneficiaries.
"The basic concern of 40 million Americans being uninsured has not gone away," said Karen Davis, a vice president of the Commonwealth Fund. "We project 67 million uninsured by 2002."
Although there's no doubt much of America was frightened by Clinton's sweeping overhaul, a February poll showed 71 percent of respondents expect the health care situation to worsen, Davis said. "It's sort of nagging at people."
Still, the only health proposal before Congress this summer is a modest effort to help people to keep their health insurance when they lose or change jobs. Named after its two sponsors, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kansas, it could be sent to the president this week.
That leaves Medicare and Medicaid, the two government programs that cover the poor and elderly, as the remaining health issues this year. The Medicare debate is set to explode this week when program trustees release a report on the financial condition of the fund.
Dole will also argue that his party wants to offer senior citizens more health care choices, such as HMOs, while extending Medicare's solvency into the next century, said Sheila Burke, his chief of staff and a former nurse who advises Dole on health issues.
Democrats are ready with a response.
"He was the one who cast a vote against Medicare in 1965," said Chris Jennings, Clinton's special assistant on health policy.
But Burke said Dole's record will withstand scrutiny.
"He voted for an alternative in 1965," she said. "As chairman of the Finance Committee he brought many of the greatest reforms to the Medicare program. In the last 20 years, many of Medicare's improvements were directly the result of Bob Dole."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)