Clinton Time: Do We Set Our Clocks Forward or Back?



Just like the architect of the Tower of Babel bustling out of his studio with a fresh set of drawings, Hillary Clinton has produced a new health plan. Politicians don’t care to admit they messed up, and Mrs Clinton is no exception to this rule. In fact she is entirely incapable of conceding error. The most she would concede during the rollout ceremonies earlier this month is that the last time she took on the health industry, she was too ambitious. This is a most forgiving posture towards one of the great political disasters of the 1990s.

In the dawn of the Clinton era, many Americans believed the new president might actually do something to fix the mess optimistically described as the health care system. Bill Clinton’s pledge to do so was a prime reason why he got elected. In the first hours of his presidency, he announced he was handing the big assignment to his wife. The political conditions were favorable. In early 1993, nearly 70 per cent of all Americans wanted a system of national healthcare, a sound base on which to build a national coalition powerful enough to cow the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies–two of the most powerful forces on the American political scene.

Hilary Clinton is not a populist by temperament. She had been a powerful corporate lawyer in Little Rock, accustomed to covert deals behind closed doors. When health care reformers, Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein urged Mrs Clinton in early 1993 to use that small window of opportunity to take on the insurance industry and bring in a Canadian-style system and that the majority of all Americans would support her, she answered contemptuously to Himmelstein, “tell me something interesting”. As she embarked on her mission, all the early headlines concerned her obsession with secrecy.

By the time Mrs Clinton’s 1342-page Bill landed in Congress later in 1993, she had managed to offend the very Democratic leadership essential to making health reform a reality. The proposal itself, under the mystic mantra ‘Managed Competition’, embodied all the distinctive tropes of neo-liberalism: a naive complicity with the darker corporate ftorces, accompanied by an adamant refusal to even consider building the popular political coalition that alone could have faced and routed the opposition.

Fourteen years after that debacle, health care in America has got steadily worse. Critics trumpet endlessly the bleak statistic that nearly 50 million people are without any form of health insurance at all, though it is not clear whether this is quite the disaster it is cracked up to be, given the lethal nature of huge portions of the “health” system. Go to a doctor flourishing your Blue Cross card and three months later the insurance company notifies you that deductibles and other conditions laid out on the policy in 2-point type mean that the company is ponying up only 5 per cent of the bill. Get in a car crash–a prime reason to have health insurance–and the surgeon debating whether to sew you together again checks on the amount of coverage on your policy and if it’s below $2 million may let you die in the waiting room. It nearly happened to a friend of my neighbor, Joe Paff, though in that instance the hospital found Joe’s pal was covered up to $3 million and so the operation went forward.

Costs are now so high that the middle class is being priced out of the game. It’s cheaper to head for Panama or Costa Rica or even India and pay cash on the barrel. Many Russians now naturalized as Americans simply head back to the former Soviet Union for any serious surgical or dental procedure. Even taking a $2,000 Aeroflot ticket into account, it works out far cheaper.

Those with no sanctuary in another country head for Chinese herbalists, dose themselves with homeopathic nostrums or smoke marijuana to keep the pain at bay.

Reformers flourish the Canadian system as the model; Michael Moore’s recent film Sicko dwelled on its allurements. But Canada has a social democratic tradition. America has none. The sole surviving relic of the New Deal era is Social Security, and that is under constant assault.

So ‘health reform’ in the present age means, at best, a slight cosmetic adjustment, and so it is with Mrs Clinton’s new plan, modelled on a scheme adopted in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, whereby everybody is legally compelled to have some type of health insurance.

As Drs Woolhandler and Himmelstein recently described it on this site the Massachusetts plan spells out as compulsory ruin. A couple in their fifties face a minimum annual premium of $8,638. Their policy has no coverage for prescription medicines, and there’s a $2,000 deductible per person before the insurance even kicks in. In other words, they’re destroyed by the insurance costs, before they are plunged into bankruptcy with the arrival of any serious illness.

So, for all these reasons, no one–probably not even its author–takes Mrs Clinton’s plan very seriously. They all know that in this decade, far more than in the early 1990s, the darker forces are firmly in control. In the health area, as Rick Hertzberg points out in an interesting piece in the current Yorker, every Democratic presidential candidate since Truman has pledged to reform the heath system, and every Democratic president has swiftly collapsed in the face of the lobbies opposing reform. Whoever is president in 2009, there’s not a chance in a million that there will be any substantive rearrangement of the furniture.

The Clintons have always excited passions disproportionate to their very modest talents as creative politicians. Looking back across the Nineties at the frenzied Republican onslaughts on the couple, one can only wag one’s head in bemusement at the Right’s hysteria. Why did they consume so much energy in savaging a pair who had learned conclusively from their earlier upsets in Arkansas that you don’t get ahead by offending the powerful, starting with the timber and chicken barons who controlled that backward and impoverished state?

To be fair on Bill and Hillary, beyond some ritual freshets of campaign rhetoric in primary season they have never advertised themselves as anything other than reliable guardians of the basic Business Round Table agenda that defines the programmatic vision of 99.9 per cent of all American politicians.

The function of the Democratic Party is to sell stuff to the populace the Republicans can’t get away with on their own, like throwing single mothers and children off the welfare rolls or exporting America’s blue collar jobs to Mexico and China. Briskly enough, Bill Clinton handed economic policy over to the Wall Street traders, led by his Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. The Clinton years saw a bubble boom, pushed along by consumer-spending by the rich. The ratio of wages for the average worker to the pay of the average CEO went from 113 to 1 in l991, just before Clinton stepped into the White House, to 449 to 1 when he quit. The overall bargaining position of labor got worse, as did the situation of the very poor. Two thirds of Clinton’s famed fiscal turnaround stemmed from cuts in government spending relative to GDP (54 per cent), something well beyond Republican competence.

But since right-wing talk radio and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal depend on the daily evocation and execration of demons, the Clintons were never given a pat on the back for their seven years of Republican governance, following the opening year of chastisement and collapsed expectations. Instead they were methodically haunted with charges wild enough to make a Borgia blink, enhanced with intricate flow charts of the serial assassination of their enemies. (Touchingly, American conspiracy-mongers credit their presidents with fiendish efficiency, of which Bush and Cheney’s supposed “inside job” downing of the World Trade Center Towers is the most recent example.)

Recently I endured the penance of reading the second volume of Nigel Hamilton’s biography, Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency. The plot line is simple: Clinton arrives in office in 1993 and makes a mess of things, in considerable measure because of Hillary’s arrogant insistence on being co-president. Then Bill turns things around, faces down Newt Gingrich and concludes his first term with the defeat of Bob Dole.

Although the narrative arc is childish in intellectual and imaginative contour it takes Hamilton 766 pages to get through four years. Nothing here will startle anyone who read a newspaper or weekly magazine in the period in question, let alone Bob Woodward’s The Agenda, or memoirs by the principals and secondary players–all of which are dutifully cited as prime sources in Hamilton’s footnotes. Judging by the importance he attaches to the man’s efforts, and the frequency with which he cites him, Hamilton’s most productive interview was with Leon Panetta, a California congressman who ended up as chief of staff, trying to bring order to the Clintons’ chaotic White House.

From Hamilton’s acknowledgements we learn that he submitted an even vaster manuscript which the publisher rejected. What we have here is a reduction, as they say onmenus these days, drizzled with subheads to keep the reader on track. The nine-page chapter on Paula Jones, the woman whose charges of harassment led to Clinton’s impeachment, has six subheads, shoved in by either Hamilton or, more likely a weary editor whose creative energies had long since grown sluggish: “Wanting An Apology”, “Blood in the Water”, “Sound Advice”, “Paula Jones Uncovered”. The prose is banal, faithfully reflecting the author’s unerringly conventional political outlook.

No one has yet written particularly well about the Clintons, probably because the appropriate tone–Mencken’s comic savagery–was devalued by Bill’s assailants on the right. Obsessed by Bush, the liberals cannot see Clinton for the light-weight scoundrel he was and have reinvented his terms in the White House as a golden age, whose possible sequel under the aegis of President Hillary Clinton they eagerly await.

Solemnly plowing his way through the Lewinsky scandal Hamilton misses a striking vignette of his hero, unearthed by special prosecutor Ken Starr and laid out in that hilarious document, The Starr Report, surely one of the weirdest literary enterprises in American political history. Starr solemnly recounts a White House tryst between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in 1996, when Bill, receiving satisfaction from Monica in his nether regions, gave satisfaction over the phone to Alfonso Fanjul, the Florida sugar baron who was complaining that Al Gore had just proposed a sugar tax and had vowed to clean up the Everglades.

Political biography is too pompous a literary form these days to accommodate such material with the necessary lightness of touch. But then, America has always taken its presidents far too seriously.


Letter Sent to the New York Times

From: John Walsh
Date: September 16, 2007 9:49:05 AM EDT
To: letters@nytimes.com
Subject: Frank Rich’s column

To the editor:

In an otherwise excellent column today (9/16/2007) Frank Rich perpetuates the myth that the Democrats do not have the power to end the war because of an inevitable veto from Bush.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. The war demands funding, and a new supplemental funding will soon appear before Congress. That can be filibustered in the Senate, with only the 41 votes or abstentions required to sustain a filibuster. At that moment the legislation is dead. There is nothing to veto so Bush must come back with an acceptable bill. At the same time the Democrats could submit legislation to bring the occupying troops home quickly and safely. Let Bush veto that if he dares. There is already a national petition drive for this at FilibusterForPeace.org and every Senator has received a copy of it.
In the House one person Nancy Pelosi can accomplish the same thing. She can simply refuse to bring Bush’s supplemental requests to the floor. In this she has veto power as surely as the president does.

So let us not hear from the Democrats that they do not have the power to end the war. Clearly they do. One must conclude that the Democrats support it. They pay for it and so they own it.


John V. Walsh, MD
Professor of Physiology
University of Massachusetts Medical School


From My Mailbag

Here’s Bill Dobbs, radical gay activist, beefing about Alternet’s promo of an appeal by Human Rights Campaign.

From: “William K. Dobbs”
Date: September 12, 2007 5:47:55 PM PDT
Subject: ALEX Fired for being gay


I don’t recall ever seeing something like this from AlterNet. The post ends up being free publicity and an endorsement of a group that doesn’t even oppose the death penalty yet is called Human Rights Campaign. They have no position on this war or any other and only wish to provide more troops to the military by repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ HRC wants to give Gonzales’ successor even more power with federal hate crime legislation. The group was quoted in the NY Times saying they would consider backing Bush Administration efforts to privatize social security if they could get something out of the deal. Recently they enorsed Joe Lieberman’s reelection so Bush would have one more vote. What’s going on? Did Hazen take money for this? Solomonese, the executive director, was at Emily’s List previously. One thing to back federal legislation to provide more penalties for employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, etc. but the way AlterNet did this does damage–suckering progressives and liberals into believing HRC is a decent organization.

You can quote any or all of this.


—–Original Message—–
From: AlterNet
Sent: Wednesday, September 12, 2007 12:12 PM
To: duchamp@mindspring.com
Subject: Fired for being gay

Dear Reader,

I was pretty shocked to understand that laws against discrimination based on race, gender, religion, national origin, and disability don’t account for sexual orientation. GLBT Americans can still be legally fired in 31 states just for being gay–and 39 states just for being transgender. This must be changed. As the Employment Non-Discrimination Act goes before The House, please let The Human Rights Campaign know where you stand.

Don Hazen
Executive Editor,

From Joe Solmonese
President of Human Rights Campaign

Dear Friend,

You love your job. Your supervisors give you top ratings. Then, one day, a colleague finds out you’re gay. A week later, you find your desk emptied into a box. You’re fired. The reason? Your sexual orientation.

Here’s the worst part: firing you for being gay was 100% legal. It’s an outrage. In 31 states, you can be fired solely because you’re gay–and if you’re transgender, that’s 39 states.

After years spent laying the groundwork, the Human Rights Campaign is poised to end this injustice by helping pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). This vital legislation is likely to come up for a vote in Congress in the coming weeks–and we need your voice.

Tell your Representative to stand up for GLBT equality in the workplace before the House votes this month!

What’s even more outrageous is that the radical right is fighting to keep this legislation from passing. They’re using scare tactics to fire up their base, saying things like:

“ENDA will force businesses with 15 or more employees to accommodate homosexuals, drag queens, transsexuals, and even she-males in their employment practices and facilities.” (1)

It’s absurd. And their campaign to enshrine hatred and bigotry in the American legal code will only intensify–they’re putting major resources into blocking our progress, by flooding Congress with lies and misinformation.

We need your help to make sure your lawmakers know

. Current federal law protects workers against discrimination based on their race, gender, religion, national origin, and disability–but NOT based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

. ENDA is NOT about special treatment. It does not excuse poor job performance. It simply gives gay and transgendered workers the same rights and protections as their colleagues.

. Nearly 90% of Fortune 500 companies now include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies. It’s time the government caught up with the private sector.

Our momentum is growing in the House. And Americans overwhelmingly agree that GLBT people should have equal employment opportunities. But sometimes it only takes a vocal anti-gay minority to derail legislation like this. We must spread the truth, today.

Send a message to your Representative in support of GLBT workers’ rights.

We live in a country that was founded upon the principle of equal opportunity. Yet centuries later, that principle does not apply to GLBT Americans.

Thank you for helping us end this hypocrisy–so that millions of Americans can work without fear.


Joe Solmonese

(1) Traditional Values Coalition


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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