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In The Court, A "Politically Dangerous" Argument Obama First Advanced

This time four years ago, Barack Obama was the one campaigning against the individual mandate. Hillary Clinton's campaign warned, presciently, that his argument would return to haunt him.

Posted on March 28, 2012, at 9:15 a.m. ET

On February 1, 2008, in the frantic run-up to Super Tuesday, Senator Hillary Clinton's aides convened a conference call with reporters to sound a note of outrage over a round of mailings from Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

The mailers targeted a central feature of Clinton's health care plan, a mandate that Obama said "forces everyone to buy insurance, even if you can't afford it," headed with an image of a couple that recalled the "Harry and Louise" campaign the insurance industry ran against the Clinton Administration attempt at a health care overhaul.

The call became a distraction when one health care expert, Len Nichols of the New America Foundation, let his fury at the Democrat-on-Democrat attack get the better of him.

"I am personally outraged at the picture used in this mailing," he said. "It is as outrageous as having Nazis march through Skokie, Ill.... I just find it disgusting that this kind of imagery is being used to attack the only way to get to universal coverage."

But it was Clinton's top policy aide, a politically astute policy wonk named Neera Tanden, whose warning that day sounds particularly relevant right now. The attack was, she warned, "politically dangerous." Tanden went on to help craft Obama's health care law from the Department of Health and Human Services; she's now one of its key defenders as president of the Center for American Progress.

The attack, Obama aides said at the time, polled well, however. It was a bit thin in its substance — Obama's mailer cited the Daily Iowan, a student newspaper — and Obama's own alternative was barely developed, but could involved, he had told Tim Russert, "charg[ing] a penalty if they try to sign up later." The comment never went anywhere, but Paul Krugman kind of liked the idea.

The main thrust of Obama's health care talk, though, was an assault on Clinton, not an elaboration of his own plan, and as Toby Harnden recalled yesterday, Obama articulated a liberal critique of what is now ObamaCare that begins a lot like the conservative one.

"A mandate means that in some fashion, everybody will be forced to buy health insurance," he said in a South Carolina debate.

He continued, however, that the real solution was simply to spend more: "I believe the problem is not that folks are trying to avoid getting health care," he said. "The problem is they can't afford it. And that's why my plan emphasizes lowering costs."

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