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Hillary Clinton & the Hostile Takeover of the Health Care Debate

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Want to know why Washington Democrats have stopped focusing on and talking about the GOP's culture of corruption? Just read this story in today's New York Times about New York Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) and you won't be so shocked at the silence anymore.

The piece details how "Clinton is receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions" from the health care industry. "Nationwide, she is the No. 2 recipient of donations from the industry, trailing only Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a member of the Republican leadership," the Times notes. The piece goes on to detail how industry executives now publicly praise Clinton for her willingness to back off pushing for major health care reform as she did back in the early 1990s.

The health care industry, of course, has a lot of money to spread around to politicians who have their hand out. This is the industry that the Wall Street Journal this week reported "was the biggest spender [on lobbying] for the seventh year in a row, with more than $356 million in 2005." So the fact that health insurance and pharmaceutical executives are throwing cash at Clinton is no surprise.

But what is surprising is how out in the open the pay-to-play culture is, and the openness of that culture explains why Democrats have stopped talking about corruption - it's because many of their high-profile incumbents are increasingly complicit. To give you an idea of how out in the open this really is, check out this one nonchalant mention, buried in the story as if it's unimportant:

"Frederick H. Graefe, a health care lawyer and lobbyist in Washington for more than 20 years, said, 'People in many industries, including health care, are contributing to Senator Clinton today because they fully expect she will be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008.' 'If the usual rules apply,' Mr. Graefe said, early donors will 'get a seat at the table when health care and other issues are discussed.'"

Of course, this money seems to already be buying something, even though the presidential contest hasn't started. As I note in my book Hostile Takeover, money in Washington doesn't just buy votes or policies, it buys language and the overall political debate. We can see that right in this article, as the Times notes Clinton recently gave a speech to a health industry group where she essentially apologized for pushing systemic health care reform. "We tried to do too much too fast 12 years ago," she said, bowing down to the industry that is funneling her so much cash.

What I find particulary incredible is Clinton's apparent tone deafness. Health care regularly ranks as a top concern in polls. Similarly, as my book details, polls show that a majority of Americans support a universal, government guaranteed, government sponsored health care system, even if that requires tax increases. In fact, as I pointed out in the Washington Post, a recent Pew poll showed that even half the hard-core Republican base supports such a position.

Thus, Hillary Clinton is in a terrific position to make the powerful point that she was right to have tried to seriously address the issue in the early 1990s, she makes no apologies for it, and she will redouble her efforts as a Senator and as president (if she runs).

Such a stand would transcend the health care issue and help her build up credibility on the intangible character issue. It would show that she has courage, because she would be making no apologies for an effort that she has been unfairly attacked for throughout the years.

Instead, she seems so caught up in Washington's pay-to-play culture and so unconcerned with the hostile takeover of our government by Big Money interests that she is actually going out and apologizing for her previous courage. Not only is that unfortunate policy-wise, but it is a huge political mistake, because all it does is reinforce the image of Democrats having their thumb in the wind, and their hand out for the next big campaign contribution.

UPDATE: In case any of you think I am just an obsessive Hillary basher, think again. I have repeatedly praised her when she has been true to the progressive movement (here and here are just two examples). The point is not to attack Sen. Clinton personally - it is to question her behavior as it relates to key public policies. If we as a progressive movement don't ask these questions of BOTH parties, then we will never get the kinds of policies we want when our politicians are in power.