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WASHINGTON — She wooed Republicans in Congress while bristling at the national news media. She aspired to be a pioneer of women’s rights around the world while running a full-blown war room on health care at home. She was, in her staff’s view, often too defensive, too removed in public.
But perhaps more than anything, the roughly 3,500 pages of documents made public by the National Archives on Friday underscored what a pivotal force Hillary Rodham Clinton was in her husband’s White House, intimately involved in the policy, politics and legislative strategy decisions that shaped Washington in the 1990s.
If the release of the previously withheld memos, transcripts and other papers from the Clinton White House did not fundamentally alter the understanding of Hillary Clinton’s role at the time, they still offered a rare and more detailed look at the machinations from an era that are now of acute interest not just to the history of one presidency but to the prospects of another.
The pages document Clinton’s struggles to overhaul health care and define her political identity in the years before she became a senator, presidential candidate and secretary of state. As she prepares for a possible second campaign for the presidency in 2016, friends and foes alike will flyspeck the files for information that may yield fodder for the coming debate.
Many of the documents from her failed drive to remake the health care system in 1993 foreshadow the current political polarization over President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
“I’m not going to underestimate the political battle that will ensue because of this,” Clinton told Democratic leaders in a September 1993 meeting on Capitol Hill, according to a transcript. In fielding lawmaker concerns, she recognized the political risks.
“If we don’t get this done by the close of business next year, if this isn’t signed, sealed and delivered by Election Day 1994, I think we can forget about us doing very well in the election,” one lawmaker said. Clinton said her hope was to “move as quickly as possible.” The concern was legitimate; the legislation did not pass and Democrats went on to lose those midterm elections, echoing the anxiety many in her party have about this year’s congressional contests.
The memos make clear what a concerted effort she made. They outlined a methodical courting of Congress run out of a war room, including meetings, telephone calls, dinners and briefings by her and President Bill Clinton. The two wooed not just Democrats but key Republicans as well; as their health care adviser, Chris Jennings, put it in a memo, “cultivating a close working relationship with the Republicans” on a key committee “is absolutely critical.”
While opting to require businesses to provide health care coverage, Hillary Clinton eschewed a mandate requiring that individuals obtain insurance, the approach that Obama would later adopt; she called that “politically and substantively a much harder sell than the one we’ve got.”
Jennings advised her to “please try to avoid the word MANDATE” at all. They also worried that the Congressional Budget Office “is going to screw us” on its assessment of the plan and that abortion could be “a big problem,” similarly previewing events in the current administration.
The documents were posted online Friday by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., which is part of the federal government’s National Archives and Records Administration.