A centerpiece of Hillary Clinton’s case for her candidacy – that she rebounded from the disaster of her health-care plan in 1994 to help enact a popular state-by-state program for children’s health insurance three years later – looks to be largely a fabrication.

At most, Clinton appears to have been a quiet supporter within her husband’s White House for the so-called S-CHIP program, which was fashioned through bipartisan compromise in the U.S. Senate against initial Clinton administration opposition.

Nevertheless, in debates and speeches over the past several months, Clinton has presented her S-CHIP role as proof of her key argument that the way to achieve progress in Washington is through hard work and determination.

“You know, when I wasn’t successful about getting universal health care, I didn’t give up,” Clinton said during the Feb. 26 debate in Ohio. “I just got to work and helped to create the Children’s Health Insurance Program. And, you know, today in Ohio 140,000 kids have health insurance.”

In speeches, Clinton alters her references to the S-CHIP program to cite the number of children covered in whatever state she’s in. Her story often receives warm applause and the nodding of heads. Sometimes, mothers of sick children are brought to Clinton’s campaign appearances to thank her.

However, according to people familiar with the history of the S-CHIP program, Clinton’s account is essentially false or – at least – a gross exaggeration.

In her memoir, Living History, the S-CHIP law merited only a brief reference at the end of a long paragraph in which she asserts, “I worked behind the scenes with Senator [Ted] Kennedy to help create the Children’s Health Insurance Program.”

However, according to a Boston Globe examination of the program’s history, Clinton “had little to do with crafting the landmark legislation or ushering it through Congress.” The Globe article by Susan Milligan quoted key participants in the law’s passage as having little or no recollection of any legislative role by the then-First Lady.

“The [Clinton] White House wasn’t for it,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who worked with Sen. Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, to write the law and to win passage. “We really had to rough them [President Bill Clinton and his advisers] up. … She may have done some advocacy [privately] over at the White House. But I’m not aware of it.”

President Clinton fought the original S-CHIP plan in 1997 because he feared it might disrupt a budget deal he was crafting with Republican leaders who then controlled Congress. However, Kennedy – recruiting Hatch and other Republicans – managed to forge a bipartisan consensus behind the bill, which passed later that year.

Asked by the Globe about Hillary Clinton’s role, Hatch responded: “Does she deserve credit for S-CHIP? No, Teddy does, but she doesn’t.”

Bay State Plan

The Globe reported that Kennedy patterned the S-CHIP plan after a Massachusetts program that started in 1996. Kennedy met with two Bay State health-care advocates, Dr. Barry Zuckerman of Boston Medical Center and John McDonough, then a Democratic state legislator.

McDonough said Kennedy developed the national S-CHIP concept after that meeting.

“I don’t recall any signs of Mrs. Clinton’s engagement,” said McDonough, who has not endorsed a presidential candidate. “I’m sure she was behind the scenes, engaged in lobbying, but it is demonstrably not the case” that she was a driving force behind the bill.

Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who was then the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee that handles health legislation, also had no recollection of Hillary Clinton weighing in.

“I don’t remember the role of the [Clinton] White House,” said Waxman, who is uncommitted on this year’s presidential race. “It [the S-CHIP bill] did not originate at the White House.”

In response to the Globe’s inquiries, Clinton campaign advisers did not spell out what Clinton did to enact the law, but one aide, Chris Jennings, said “at every step of the way, she was always pushing” for expanded healthcare for children.

The Clinton campaign also suggested that politics might be influencing the questions about Clinton’s S-CHIP role, since Sen. Kennedy has endorsed Barack Obama and Sen. Hatch is supporting John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. [Boston Globe, March 14, 2008]

Still, while it’s common for politicians to highlight their roles in passing popular legislation, Sen. Clinton has woven the enactment of S-CHIP as a central thread in her campaign narrative. It explains how she would govern and why voters should embrace her vision that pluck and hard work can conquer all.

In Clinton’s narrative, she picked herself up from her failed health-care plan, learned some lessons, and then pushed through a slimmed-down measure (S-CHIP) that has produced important results for millions of American families.

If that story is essentially false, then she is misleading voters not only on her credentials as a bipartisan crafter of legislation but on her notion that she can bring about change through her burn-the-midnight-oil tenacity.

Barack Obama has offered a competing vision, that his ability to rally public enthusiasm for change – and his distance from the bitter partisanship of the Clinton Years – will let him transcend Washington’s divisions and achieve real progress on domestic priorities.

Though there may be merit to both approaches, neither Democratic candidate has articulated what may be the most important element in overcoming Republican resistance – winning a landslide that carries in large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

However, the likelihood that either Obama or Clinton will have the “coattails” needed to achieve a filibuster-proof Senate or a dominant House majority has faded over the past several weeks with the length and negativity of the Democratic nominating race.

The disclosure that Hillary Clinton hyped her role in passing the S-CHIP law is only going to raise new doubts about the honesty and integrity of the onetime Democratic frontrunner.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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