Fickle On Universal Health Care?

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THE PLANK FEBRUARY 19, 2008

Fickle On Universal Health Care?

About two weeks ago, I wrote in this space about Congressman Jim Cooper of Tennessee. Cooper is perhaps best known as the sponsor of a centrist health care reform proposal during the 1993-94 debate.  As recounted in several histories, Cooper famously became convinced that the Clinton camp, and Hillary in particular, was too stubborn in their dealings with Congress.  To this day, Cooper believes that sort of obstinance would make Hillary Clniton a poor choice to be president.

The reason I wrote about Cooper was his prominent appearance in a David Brooks column.  According to the column, Cooper thought Clinton's actions on the 2008 campaign trail were reminiscient of her actions in 1993-94 -- and not in a good way.  Cooper seemed particularly incensed that Clinton was making such a big deal out of "individual mandates" -- the proposed requirement that everybody obtain insurance, which Clinton included in her plan but Barack Obama did not.  Here is how Brooks described Cooper's feelings:

Cooper, who, not surprisingly, supports Barack Obama, believes that
Clinton hasn’t changed. “Hillary’s approach is so absolutist, draconian
and intolerant, it means a replay of 1993.”

He argues that her more coercive approach would once again be a
political death knell. No Republican will support it. Red state
Democrats will face impossible pressures at home. It’s smarter to begin
by offering people affordable access to coverage and evolve from there.

Cooper is entitled to his opinion, naturally.  And I'm sure many people share it.  But Cooper's anger struck me as odd because, as I explained in my original item, he is presently co-sponsoring a new health care reform measure in the House.  And that measure includes an individual mandate, just like the new Clinton plan does. 

After the item appeared, a representative from Cooper's office called me to suggest I'd misunderstood what Cooper meant.  Yes, Cooper thought Clinton was being intransigent.  But, the staffer said, it was because of her "personal style and m.o., not the specs of her policy."

If that's true, then Cooper isn't the hypocrite that I thought -- and I apologize for the insinuation.  But I'm still not sure that validates his criticism of Clinton, at least if you are concerned about health care.  Over at the American Prospect, Ezra Klein has a nice review of Cooper's role in the 93-94 battle.  The difference of opinion then was pretty fundamental; the Clintons wanted universal coverage, Cooper didn't. The Clintons lost in the end, but it's not clear to me that making a deal with Cooper was such a great idea, either. 

All of which brings us back around to the 2008 race, in which Cooper is not just supporting Barack Obama but speaking as a surrogate for him.  For health care reformers, the big question about Obama has always been his commitment to universal coverage -- whether he'd push hard enough for that goal, or settle for less when the going got tough.  (That's one reason why the individual mandates are such a big deal in the first place; they signal a determination to get everybody into the system.) Putting Cooper front and center doesn't exactly assuage those concerns.

--Jonathan Cohn 

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posted in: the plank, health, labor, social issues, barack obama, jim cooper

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