Tuesday, October 16, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Hillary pilloried

Ernie Dumas

Barring a crackup like Howard Dean’s in Iowa in 2004, Sen. Hillary Clinton seems to be on her way to sewing up the Democratic nomination for president by the end of February.

She now has lapped the No. 2 contender, Sen. Barack Obama, in the polls and both Obama and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina are trending downward.

Edwards hoped that the liberal wing of the party — the big unions, ardent feminists and abortion-rights groups — would rally to him, but in spite of their concern about Sen. Clinton’s coolness or reluctance on their issues they are holding back in the face of her commanding and growing lead.

No one wants to back a loser if the prospective winner is at least acceptable.

Hillary Clinton is not apt to explode like Dean did on the evening of his disappointing showing in the Iowa caucus. She has always been too shrewd and too cagey for that. If anything, she is too cautious to a fault.

Now Clinton has only one hurdle, which is the gnawing doubt about her electability against a Republican like Rudy Giuliani who might carve into the big center of the U. S. electorate while holding to the conservative Republican base.

The American right has crafted a profile of Hillary Clinton over the past 16 years that has permeated the electorate and driven her “negatives” into the 45 percent range.

Many Democrats doubt whether she can drive the negatives down, especially in the face of an overwhelming offensive once she has won the nomination. A glance at any day’s op-ed offerings around the country, including our own, will reinforce those doubts.

Nearly every month a new book rolls off the right-wing press painting the former first lady of Arkansas and the nation as a cross between Eva Peron and Tokyo Rose.

The latest books, by the rabid propagandists Edward Klein, R. Emmett Tyrell, Bay Buchanan and Christopher Andersen, warn that Sen. Clinton is trying to make herself over into a sweet, demure lady but that the woman who sounds so reasonable, optimistic and statesmanlike in all those presidential debates and TV interviews is really the same evil vixen they always said she was.

The popular image of Hillary Clinton is a remarkable phenomenon.

She is supposed to be the ultra-liberal in the political couple, her husband the cautious middle-of-the-roader.

All that we know about them suggests exactly the opposite, that she blunted his bolder impulses and guided him to centrist and even conservative positions.

Certainly that was the case in Arkansas.

She pushed her husband into embracing her idea of a mandatory basic-skills test of all teachers, which earned her the enmity of the teachers union, and she vetoed his plans for progressive tax increases in the early 1980s.

She served on corporate boards, including Wal-Mart’s, and her law practice served business clients almost altogether.

Frustrated advisers to the governor complained privately that whenever they agreed upon some liberal course Clinton would come back the next day and explain Hillary’s practical objections to the course.

When President Clinton embraced the Republican clampdown on welfare benefits in 1997, commentators speculated that it must have caused friction in the White House living quarters because Hillary was known as an old supporter of the Children’s Defense Fund, which opposed the nostrum. The truth was that she advised him to sign the legislation.

Her reputation as a “big-government liberal,” that damning phrase, was cemented by the failed universal health care plan in 1994. She chaired a committee appointed by her husband to develop a national health-care plan that would guarantee medical treatment for everyone.

It failed upon united Republican opposition and an effective national ad campaign by elements of the insurance industry (some of the big insurers supported the plan) that warned people that they would lose their current insurance and be forced into a plan in which they could not choose their doctors, hospitals or insurer. It was labeled as a big government-run plan. The opposite was true. The plan was basically her husband’s blueprint.

He had said at the outset that he wanted a system built upon the existing employer-based private-insurance system.
That is what “Hillarycare,” as her enemies have labeled it derisively, did. People would have been given more choices rather than fewer.

But the plan was hopelessly complicated because she set out to write into the legislation exactly how every conceivable contingency might be handled.

Those things ordinarily are handled by regulations, which run into hundreds of pages. Each region of the country — usually a state, like Arkansas — would have had insurance companies competing with other through a variety of fee-for-service and managed-care plans.

People could choose any of the plans offered in the region. The plan seemed so complicated that it could not be easily explained or comprehended. It was easy to attack and distort, and it was.

The health-reform plan she outlined in September is basically the same plan without the regional pools and all the regulatory details.

There is a better way than hers to achieve universal coverage, with lower costs to taxpayers, and that is to expand Medicare to cover everyone and to enable the government to negotiate lower pharmaceutical costs and regulate benefits.

But the consensus seems to be that the corporate opposition is too formidable to do that.

So the new Clinton plan builds upon the employment-based private insurance system and provides government-supplied options for those outside the employment network.

In other words, it’s simpler and politically more digestible. Before anyone had even read it, the right-wing commentariat was ridiculing it as big-government Hillarycare.

But that is what she — and her party — are up against. There will be more, unrelentingly, of the same. If it is any comfort to worried Democrats, she seems to be politically wiser than she was.

Critical legislation, to be successful, must be simple and issues have to be simplified. And you must rebut the critics openly and robustly.

By February, Democrats may be able to assess how well she will counter the barrage of invective, much of it personal, that is sure to come with rising intensity. Hope may be all they have.