Shedding light on Clinton’s health overhaul flop

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WASHINGTON (AP) - Thousands of pages of documents from President Bill Clinton’s White House affirm a longtime adage: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

As Clinton prepared for an August 1994 news conference in which he hoped to build public support for his struggling - and ultimately unsuccessful - health care overhaul, he told his advisers: “A lot of them want to know they can keep their own plan if they like it.” Later that fall, Clinton’s Democrats were routed in midterm elections and lost control of Congress.

Nearly two decades later, President Barack Obama sought to reassure Americans about his own plan, which won approval in Congress in 2010, by telling them, “If you like your plan you can keep it.” A spate of private policy cancellations forced Obama to recant his pledge that all Americans who liked their plans could simply keep them.

More than 8 million people have signed up for health insurance under the “Obamacare” law; how the overhaul is perceived could become a deciding point for the fate of Obama’s fellow Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections.

About 7,500 pages of records released Friday through the National Archives and the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., show the parallels between the Clinton era and the White House under Obama. The documents may also offer a glimpse into a future as former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led her husband’s health care task force, considers another presidential campaign in 2016.

One undated memo written after the 1994 elections offers advice on how Mrs. Clinton could show a softer side. An unidentified aide told the first lady, “It’s no surprise that some Americans can’t handle smart, tough, independent women,” and encouraged Clinton to pick issues and events accentuating her personal side, not wonky interests, and recommended she do more listening.

As Clinton planned to attend the 1995 U.N. women’s conference in Beijing, the aide wrote, “It is crucial that we dispel notions (sure to be perpetuated by the Religious Right) that you are part of some feminist cabal meeting in China to plot a takeover of the world.” The conference was where Clinton declared that “women’s rights are human rights.”

The documents show the challenges the president faced in winning support for his health care bill. In 1993, Clinton’s advisers estimated that passing the legislation would require a delicate balance of Democratic and Republican support, needing at least eight moderate Republicans in the Senate and 15 to 20 in the House to win approval.

A strategy memo argued the plan would require support from enough conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans without alienating too many liberal Democrats. But the bill never cleared a House committee.

“The complexity of our bill undermines our chances for success but without complexity, success is impossible,” the unsigned memo said.

It identified several lawmakers as “swing votes,” including Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who became the GOP presidential nominee against Clinton in 1996, and several House members still serving, including Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Frank Pallone, D-N.J.

After Republicans swept to victory in the 1994 elections, in part because of the failed health care overhaul, the mood at the White House was sour. “We got slaughtered,” wrote communications aide David Dreyer in November 1994. “Event of historic proportions. Worse bloodbath since 1922 in the Harding administration, but even he didn’t lose control of both chambers.”

Obama also had a blunt reaction after Republicans won control of the House in the 2010 elections, in part because of fallout from passage of the new health care law. He described the defeat as “a shellacking.”

More recently, Obama has tried to win support in Congress for his plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, pointing to it as a way to pull families out of poverty.

The Clinton administration also had internal debates over the minimum wage, which the president signed into law in 1996, boosting the rate from $4.25 an hour to $5.15 an hour by September 1997.

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