A Cautionary Tale for David Brooks and Others

What, really, was Jim Cooper’s ‘Clinton Lite?’

Now comes New York Times columnist David Brooks damning Hillary Clinton with faint praise. In his Tuesday column, Brooks says he’s no “Hillary-hater” and even calls her an “outstanding senator.” Then Brooks lets loose his canon fire, writing that, at certain moments, “her dark side emerges and threatens to undo the good she is trying to achieve.” Her dark side surfaced, Brooks said, when she dismissed a health reform proposal put forth in 1993-94 by Jim Cooper, a Democratic congressman from Tennessee. Brooks, who portrays Cooper as a thoughtful, cordial guy, reports that when Cooper met with Clinton to discuss their differences, she rebuffed him—“the coldest reception of my life,” Cooper called it. “I was excoriated.”

I know columnists have license to be one-side and opinionated, but sometimes their less-than-objective reportage and opinions have a way of becoming eternal truth. If Hillary Clinton had a dark side, Jim Cooper’s efforts at health reform did, too, and that tale is worth remembering by the press as Clinton and Obama duke it out over similar issues. Cooper’s campaign to insert his brand of reform into the mix in 1994 is something that we at CJR know a lot about. In “The Selling of ‘Clinton Lite,’” published in March/April 1994, we chronicled his efforts to woo and wow the press to get them on board with his plan using the same kind of empty talk and sloganeering we hear today. Cooper dubbed his plan ‘Clinton Lite,’ which, unlike Clinton’s, did not anger employers with a mandate to cover their workers. It did not require individuals to buy insurance, and it did not offer any serious way to address the high price of medical care other than market forces. (We know what’s happened to health care costs since then.) Cooper’s plan was a laissez-faire version of managed competition the Clintons were promoting, and was more acceptable to the health care providers and HMOs he needed to support his run for the Senate that year. For those who have forgotten, under managed competition buyers of health care would join large cooperatives that would purchase coverage for their members while managed care companies would compete to supply insurance at the lowest price.

Cooper crafted a clever marketing plan for an end run around the House subcommittees, which were controlled by single-payer advocates. His strategy called for a “preemptive compromise” in which a bill with a groundswell of support, or what he called a “supermajority,” would be positioned as the ultimate agreement. CJR reported that his goal was to “control the debate” on health care by positioning his bill as a mainstream or centrist approach that would force the Clintons to negotiate. To cast his bill as the winner, he needed the press to show he had growing bipartisan support. In his column, Brooks says that Cooper eventually picked up fifty-eight co-sponsors in the House, both Democrats and Republicans. CJR pointed out that his bill had forty-eight co-sponsors when it was introduced and that sponsorship was not necessarily indicative of support. That year many members of Congress signed on to more than one plan.

The press cooperated and conveyed the impression that the Cooper bill was winning a popularity contest. U.S. News & World Report wrote that the proposal was “most likely to succeed” because it had “bipartisan middle-of-the-road support” and will cost less—the same points Cooper made in his press materials. The Washington Post quoted Cooper as saying his bill “is becoming so popular it’s scaring people to death down at the White House.” Cooper told USA Today he had the most popular plan in America. “We’re the only bipartisan approach,” he told Time.

Like the media so far in this year’s campaign, the press in 1994 didn’t explain how ordinary people would be affected. In fact, the press couldn’t even agree on how many people would be covered because Cooper himself gave conflicting numbers. The Palm Beach Post reported that Cooper predicted his plan would cover nearly as many of the uninsured as Clinton’s plan, which was 100 percent. The Washington Post quoted him as saying that 60 percent would be covered, and the Los Angeles Times said that by his own estimate 20 percent of the uninsured would not be covered—80 percent would be. Sounds sort of like Clinton and Obama sparring over whose plan is more universal, doesn’t it?

Finally, this year, according to Brooks, Cooper argues that Clinton’s more coercive approach to getting people covered will once again be a political death knell. Says Brooks, Cooper believes “it’s smarter to begin by offering people affordable access to coverage and evolve from there.” Perhaps he means cheap policies that don’t cover much, like the one Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield sold in Ohio last fall. It came with deductibles ranging from $4000 to $20,000 and $8000 to $40,000 for families who use out-of-network doctors. The policy covered only two doctor visits a year. It’s those details we’d like to hear about as the campaign unfolds. But the lesson from “Clinton lite” could mean we won’t be getting many. If we forget the past, we may be condemned to repeating it.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.