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It’s We, the Public, Who Are Flip Floppers

As I pointed out in a previous post, Theda Skocpol’s wonderful book, Boomerang, provides many telling details about Bill Clinton’s futile efforts to reform the U.S. health care system in the early ’90s. The book details many of the mistakes that the Clinton team made in drafting and promoting the legislation. But the failure of health care reform does not rest solely at the president’s feet. Instead, we, the general public, are also to blame. We ultimately got the policies we deserved.

Skocpol relates a powerful anecdote that nicely captures the sense of public confusion surrounding the general public during the Clinton reform efforts. It was March of 1994, and the Clinton team was trying to convince reluctant legislators to craft a bill consistent with its general approach to health care reform, which was a politically moderate bill that shunned the single payer plan preferred by liberals in favor of a bill based on “managed competition,” an idea embraced early on by moderate Republicans. Around this time, a Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll asked people what they thought of a plan that would “guarantee a standard private health benefits package… and promote competition… and require employers to buy insurance” for their employees. This description fit the Clinton plan to a “t,” and 76 percent of the public viewed it favorably. The dude had found the policy sweet spot!

Only one problem. When that same poll asked people if they approved of the “Clinton plan,” only 37 percent demonstrated support.

Public contradictions over health care reform run even deeper than antipathy to anything Clinton-esque. In its own polling, for example, the Clinton team learned that any plan they crafted that emphasized guaranteeing people “standard or basic” health care benefits would fail, because people wanted “comprehensive benefits,” feeling like it was only these more generous benefits that would be relevant to their own lives. (The administration also learned that the words “plan” and “program” were, ahem, program killers!) At the same time that the public clamored for comprehensive benefits, people also expressed their skepticism that a Democrat like Clinton could craft a health care reform bill that wouldn’t burden the taxpayers with a huge new expense. Well, of course Clinton couldn’t do that. It’s kind of hard to give everybody a Lexus at Hyundai prices!

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