In studying parallels to the past and former President Clinton's tough lessons on health care reform, Democrats on Capitol Hill may risk drawing the wrong conclusions.
With Democrats looking ahead with alarm to the 2010 midterm elections, an emerging refrain of the current health care debate warns that Clinton's trouncing on the issue in 1994 led directly to the Republican takeover of Congress. But it was not that simple, political experts say.
“There were a lot of reasons Republicans won in 1994,” said John Fortier, a political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
A poor economy, an unpopular president, political miscues like the “don't ask, don't tell” policy and a well-organized opposition helped sink the Democrats' 1994 foray into health care reform.
While the current economy is pretty bad, President Obama has a stronger job approval rating than Clinton did when he tackled health care reform. Obama is still early in his first term, and Republicans are not nearly as unified as they were in the buildup to their party's takeover of the House, nor do they have strong party leadership.
And yet, the comparisons to 1994 persist. Clinton last week visited Capitol Hill and urged Senate Democrats to get cracking on health care reform, saying failure to pass a bill would be politically catastrophic.
“It's not important to be perfect,” Clinton told reporters after his closed-door caucus meeting. “The worst thing to do is nothing.”
There are some similarities between then and now. A Gallup poll in July 1994 found 69 percent of Americans believed Congress should pass health care reform, while only 43 percent supported Clinton's plan.
An Associated Press poll released Monday found 84 percent of Americans believed the nation's health care system should be changed, while only 41 percent said they supported the plans being discussed in Congress.
Fortier agreed with Clinton's view that Democrats have to pass something.
“The slow death of health care reform would not only be a bad thing politically, but it would suck up time; there would be more negative stories in the newspaper,” Fortier said. “I do think it's important for Democrats to do this.”
Clinton paid a price for his failure to pass health care reform in 1994. With his political clout diminished, he struggled getting other policy agenda items passed — and especially after Republicans took over Congress.
Gallup reported earlier this month that public opinion on whether health care reform should pass was on the decline, with 38 percent saying they would urge their representatives in Congress to vote against it and 29 percent saying they would urge their members to vote for it.
Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida, said Clinton probably benefited in some ways by failing on health care in 1994.
“What came out was unpopular, and the attempt to push through something unpopular was what hurt the Democrats, not the failure to pass it,” Jewett said.