Hillary Clinton’s skillful introduction of her new health care plan demonstrated why she is the most formidable Democrat running for president. It also suggested that if victorious, she won’t be defeated so easily by the insurance and pharmaceutical industries as she and her husband were the last time they tried to reform the dysfunctional American medical system.

While her major rivals in both the Democratic and Republican presidential fields felt compelled to attack even before she finished speaking, their glancing blows proved only that she is now dominating the campaign.

In broad outline, what Mrs. Clinton is proposing closely resembles the ideas previously presented by John Edwards and Barack Obama. While Edwards wants a stronger role for government-backed care and Obama rejects the federal mandate for individual insurance, the differences aren’t enough to mobilize primary voters for any candidate. All of the plans would impose stringent regulation on the insurance companies; all would subsidize insurance for working-class and middle-income people; and all would finance the costs of universal coverage by repealing tax cuts for the highest brackets.

Rather than emphasize details that fascinate specialists but bore voters, Edwards and Obama each claimed he is more likely to achieve success than Mrs. Clinton, who has admittedly failed once. She anticipated that rather obvious line of criticism by acknowledging how much she has learned in the past decade or so, displaying the suppleness that was always among Bill Clinton’s greatest assets.

This refreshing approach contrasted sharply with the old stereotypes of secrecy and arrogance that haunted her previous effort, and, perhaps more importantly, girded her against the inevitable assaults from the right.

After all, she has adopted an important proposal from the Heritage Foundation as a central part of her own plan.

That’s right: One of the pillars of the new Clinton plan was originally fashioned by a prominent policy analyst at Washington’s largest conservative think tank. Back during the Clinton administration, Heritage Vice President Stuart Butler suggested that Americans be permitted to purchase insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program — the cafeteria plan that covers millions of government employees, from janitors to senators. Essentially, this was an early version of “compassionate conservatism,” with the hard-line Heritage Foundation seeking cooperation between right and left to achieve the “shared goal” of universal coverage. (Later events showed that Butler was one of very few conservatives who truly shared that goal.)

Aside from the Heritage scheme’s beguiling simplicity, it can be formulated as a question that has only one plausible answer: Shouldn’t every American enjoy the same quality and choice in health insurance that our taxes now provide for our elected representatives and all the other people who work for government?

Now, as the Heritage Foundation will surely point out, the architecture of Mrs. Clinton’s plan is much more elaborate than the Butler proposal — which would not require insurance companies to accept everyone who applies for coverage at roughly the same price, and would not have expanded Medicare as an option for individual coverage.

Yet by folding the Heritage plan into her own new plan — and by simultaneously adopting aspects of the Massachusetts and California universal-coverage plans — Mrs. Clinton is shielding herself against the inevitable barrage from both partisan and corporate adversaries. How radical is a plan that echoes the Heritage Foundation, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mitt Romney?

Of course, Romney is running away from the health care innovations he helped bring to the Bay State, just as he no longer remembers when he was an advocate of gay rights and reproductive freedom. Like Rudolph Giuliani, he seized upon Mrs. Clinton’s health initiative to warn once more against big government, socialized medicine and all the other scary things supposedly symbolized by “Hillarycare.”

Such buzz phrases have repeatedly terrified American voters into submission to the insurance industry, but they may have lost much of their power. Corporate advertising and Republican rhetoric rolled over Mrs. Clinton in 1994, but she has come back to fight again for this Democratic promise with greater wisdom and experience.

Voters are likely to respect and appreciate her perseverance, and they are also likely to regard her plan with open minds, regardless of the negative propaganda that will no doubt engulf us all. Ever since Harry Truman first proposed universal health care in 1948, the insurance industry has refused to create a system that would cover everyone, erecting instead a nightmarish edifice of corporate bureaucracy, unaffordable waste and cruel exclusion. Rather than rant against the constructive alternatives, let them — and their political mouthpieces — explain why we should continue to tolerate their failure.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (www.observer.com).

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.