White House aides say they have studied Clinton's experience with health care -- as well as President Ronald Reagan's 1986 victory on tax reform -- in fashioning a strategy. Rove cautioned that some of the Clinton comparisons are not valid.
"The Clinton health care plan was a complicated expansion of control for the federal government, substituting the government for individual choice," Rove said. Under the Bush plan, "individuals have more control and decisions are left up to them; one is far more broadly acceptable."
Some of President Bill Clinton's aides said later that he erred in not trying to reach a deal with congressional Republicans on his health care plan.
(Khue Bui -- AP)
Aides emphasize that Bush has purposely left himself flexibility by presenting his ideas as principles, rather than presenting detailed legislation as Clinton did during health care.
Still, deciding when and how to use this flexibility is one of the most delicate questions Bush faces. Over four years, this president usually has chosen defiance rather than difference-splitting in dealing with opponents. He has dismissed making premature concessions by saying he does not like to "negotiate with myself."
But history suggests waiting too long can be equally self-defeating. In late 1993 and early 1994, there were ample signs that Clinton's comprehensive health care plan was in trouble, but there were also many senior Republicans who said they would work with him to pass incremental reforms. Some of these measures would have been substantial -- expanding health insurance for children or providing subsidies to help more individuals buy their own insurance.
Clinton, at the urging of then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, refused to yield. In the 1994 State of the Union address, he waved a pen and warned Congress that he would veto any plan that did not meet his goal of universal coverage for every American. By summer, when it become obvious that his comprehensive plan was dead, Republicans were relishing Clinton's political troubles and none was still willing to compromise. That fall, Republicans swept to control in Congress, an advantage they keep to this day.
"By the time everybody in Washington knows it's time to get out, it's too late to get out," said John D. Podesta, a former Clinton chief of staff who was among those warning against Clinton's 1994 veto threat.
Podesta, who now heads the liberal Center for American Progress, said he believes Bush faces a similar defeat, because "the more people learn about the plan, the worse it does." In addition, he said, Bush has placed a "stake in the ground" about carving individual accounts from Social Security, making any retreat from that goal an unmistakable political defeat.
Another veteran of the Clinton years, former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, is not so sure. Although Ickes said he wishes defeat for Bush, he said he is fearful that a compromise plan may yet allow the president to turn Social Security from a program identified with Democrats to one identified with Republicans.
Democrats leaning toward compromise "need to think hard about what Bush is trying to do and what the stakes are," he said.
David Gergen, who served in Clinton's White House and in the administrations of several Republican predecessors, does not believe Democrats will ever give Bush the compromise victory Ickes is worried about.
"Why would they put their head in that noose?" he asked. As long as Republicans are opposed to any tax increases and Democrats are opposed to any benefit cuts, "I don't see a lot of wiggle room" for fashioning a bargain.
Given the poor prospects for victory, Gergen said, Bush's best option might be "a preemptive strategy that allows him to dump out of this and move toward a pathway to a new solution."