The early seeds of Hillary Clinton’s growing political operation can be seen in the trove of newly released records from her husband’s presidency.
The more than 4,000 pages of documents released yesterday by the Clinton Presidential Library give an insider’s view of how Clinton approached selling her health-care plan to skeptical members of Congress and the public in 1993. They also show that aides offered overly rosy assessments of how she and the plan, which ultimately failed, were being received by lawmakers.
From blanketing Capitol Hill with her trademark “thank you” notes to creating target lists of persuadable lawmakers, Clinton and her aides sought political levers that would move senators and representatives into her column. Taken together, the memos show the nascent development of a now familiar political style that relies on the methodical cultivation of personal relationships and loyalty.
“The targeting effort is now well under way,” White House aides Steve Ricchetti and Chris Jennings, both of whom later worked in the Obama administration, wrote in an April 1993 memo to an unspecified distribution list. The Department of Health and Human Services, the Democratic National Committee and the White House Intergovernmental Affairs office all worked together, and “we compiled a list of possible Republican senators and vulnerable Democrats,” they wrote.
“We are in the process of developing a detailed House list as well,” Ricchetti and Jennings wrote. “We have begun a file on every member. The files, which can be cross-tabulated, include a wide array of information on the members,” they said. “Added to these files will be information and research being obtained by the DNC and Intergovernmental Affairs.”
In some cases, the documents released online by the Little Rock, Arkansas, library show aides advised Clinton to kick staff out of meetings to make lawmakers feel they were getting special one-on-one time with her. Jennings recommended creating “a time sensitive Mrs. Clinton thank you note system following important (does not have to be all) meetings with members” of Congress.
Jennings told Clinton that she was making inroads on Capitol Hill, even as her plan faced insurmountable obstacles in both the Republican and Democratic parties.
“As a result of all of your extremely successful meetings with the members, you have established a receptive environment in the Congress for health care reform that is literally without precedent,” he wrote in a May 10, 1993, note to Clinton. “With few exceptions, you have gained the trust, respect, and friendship of the members, and they now have a desire to try to produce a health reform product for the president and you. This is no small achievement.”
An unattributed draft strategy memo shows the fears that White House officials had in the early days of the health-care overhaul push.
“There is great concern that CBO is going to screw us on savings, etc.,” the anonymous author wrote, referring to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Then-House Speaker Tom Foley’s poor relationships with fellow Democrats were considered a problem, as were the politics of abortion in the House and Senate, particularly on the House Rules Committee.
White House officials anticipated that major corporations would push back on an employer mandate and recommended that Hillary Clinton meet directly with a group of chief executives, according to a memo from Linda Bergthold, the co-chair of the task force’s Benefits Working Group, to Molly Brostrom, a special assistant on the White House health-care task force.
“I think a meeting between Mrs. Clinton and some key CEOs of a variety of large corporations would be helpful at this point,” Bergthold wrote on March 22, 1993. “I would suggest that before we make our employer mandate and participation issues final, we listen to the concerns of CEOs from a variety of corporations who purchase not provide health care.”
The two-decade-old memos hold the potential for political embarrassment for the Clintons and for President Barack Obama. The library plans to release thousands more pages in the next few weeks.
In the case of Hillary Clinton, who led the 2016 Democratic presidential primary field by 61 points in an ABC-Washington Post poll released last month, the files show how she, her husband, Bill, and their aides developed a strategy for convincing skeptical members of Congress and the public that their health-care plan should become law.
Ricchetti is currently Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff. Jennings, who offered blunt assessments of members of Congress to Hillary Clinton and others in the White House, just left the Obama administration, where he had served as top adviser on implementing the Affordable Care Act, the health-care law that is Obama’s signature legislative initiative.
“He is the key to the Congressional Black Caucus,” Jennings wrote of then-Representative Louis Stokes of Ohio in a note to Hillary Clinton in May 1993. “It’s important that he hear from you. I am convinced, though, that such ‘stroking’ will pay dividends.”
Some of the lawmakers on White House target lists remain in Congress, including Representative Sandy Levin of Michigan.
“Representative Levin’s appetite for meetings can never be satiated and he may be mad that we are not holding one this week,” Jennings wrote. “I think a call to assure him we want to have a meeting as soon as we are ready is advisable.”
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