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Clinton Blames Self for Health Plan Loss

Politics: President told authors of new book that failure cost Democrats control of Congress. Multiyear strategy would have been better, he said.

April 21, 1996|GLENN F. BUNTING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Clinton, in a candid admission of error, blamed himself for the failure of his major health care reform initiative two years ago and said in an interview with the authors of a new book that the plan's defeat cost the Democrats control of Congress.

"I set the Congress up for failure," Clinton told two veteran Washington journalists who wrote a behind-the-scenes account of the health care debate.

In an Oval Office interview with the authors last year, Clinton said he felt badly that Democrats in Congress were held accountable for the health care debacle in the 1994 election.

"This is entirely my mistake," Clinton said, "No one else's. I probably made a mistake in not then going for a multiyear strategy, and not trying to say we've got to try to do it in '94."

The president's remarks effectively confirm charges leveled by Republican opponents, who said the White House was to blame for the initiative's failure, as well as the complaints of Democrats who argued at the time that Clinton was trying to do too much too quickly.

In their book "The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point," journalists David S. Broder and Haynes Johnson examine the American policy-making system during the time Clinton's health care package went nowhere on Capitol Hill.

Broder is a national correspondent and syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. Johnson is a former columnist and national reporter for the Post. They have written 16 books between them.

The new book, their first joint effort, says Clinton committed a serious error when he chose First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and advisor Ira Magaziner to head the White House task force on health care. "Having Hillary at the head of the task force inhibited the political debate within the administration," the authors concluded.

The president told them that he chose his wife for the job because he thought she had the talent and a grasp of the issues, and because she was the only one around the White House who "could devote full time to it."

Moreover, by selecting her, Clinton said, "People would know that I was really serious about trying to do this."

Clinton acknowledged that he underestimated the potential problems of appointing the first lady to such a prominent post. "There was a sense that some people felt that they were somewhat constrained by" her role, Clinton said. "I was surprised by that. . . ."

The book also demonstrates how lobbying by special interest groups doomed Clinton's health care reforms and how House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) then used the defeat in engineering the sweeping Republican victory in the 1994 congressional elections.

Clinton said he should have withdrawn his one-year strategy when Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), then head of the Appropriations Committee, refused to attach the health care bill to broad budget legislation.

In retrospect, Clinton said, he should have told the American people: " 'Listen, I know you're frustrated about this and we need to do it, but better to take another year and do it right.' I might have been able to sell that to the American people and it might have made a difference in the way the American people viewed the Democrats in the '94 election."

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