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What's Bill Clinton up to on Obamacare?

What's Bill Clinton up to on Obamacare?
Bill Clinton visits Yale Law School, Oct. 5, 2013.
Bill Clinton visits Yale Law School, Oct. 5, 2013.

Next Wednesday, President Bill Clinton will be back at the White House when the current incumbent presents him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The timing could hardly be more awkward.

Clinton did President Obama no favors this week when he endorsed a growing push on Capitol Hill to modify the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in order to allow people to keep their existing individual health insurance policies if they want to.

“Even if it takes a change to the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got," Clinton said in an online video interview released Tuesday.

The comments left some observers wondering just what the former president, long known as a wily political tactician, was up to.

After all, the remarks, which came as the White House has been working feverishly to head off the idea of legislative changes, offered irresistible ammunition to Republican foes of the law. (“I’m inclined to agree with Bill Clinton,” said Dick Cheney.) What’s more, experts on the ACA say the proposed “fix” would badly—perhaps fatally—undermine Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment. And the GOP’s nihilistic opposition to the entire project means there’s little chance of anything constructive making it through Congress.

Some also noted the irony that Clinton had turned critic in chief despite Obama having succeeded where he failed. Clinton's own 1993 healthcare reform push, led by Hillary Clinton, was abandoned amid staunch Republican opposition. 

The White House did its best to spin Clinton’s comments. “The big lesson is that we’re better off with this law than without it,” press secretary Jay Carney said, referring to another quote Clinton gave in the same interview. But even some longtime Clinton allies were left scratching their heads.

“Not sure how helpful that was,” Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, who worked closely with Clinton in the ‘80s and ‘90s to move the Democratic Party toward the center, told msnbc.

“Practically speaking, it’s hard to see how to get a legislative fix through Congress,” Marshall said. “One has to think about the means not just the good ends of policy in this context. And I don’t know what [Clinton']s theory for that is.”

As a policy matter, changing the ACA in the way Clinton wants would be disastrous for the law, Jonathan Gruber, the MIT economics professor who was a key architect of Obamacare, as well as the similar Massachusetts law championed by Mitt Romney, told msnbc. At issue are low-cost plans that insurers are now scrapping because they don’t meet the ACA’s requirements for coverage, forcing some of those who were on the plans to pay more (and to get better coverage in return). But, Gruber explained, it’s essentially impossible to reform the existing insurance market and cover the uninsured without requiring a small number of people to foot some of the cost.

“It’s Bill Clinton essentially saying that he doesn’t want healthcare reform,” Gruber said, calling the former president’s comments “outrageous.”

“There’s no way to have health care reform and be less disruptive than what we get under this law,” said Gruber, noting that Clinton’s own failed reform measure would have been far more disruptive to the existing health insurance market.

There’s been speculation that Clinton was trying to separate his wife from the Obamacare rollout fiasco, with an eye on her possible run for president (Bill Clinton Throws Obama Under the Hillary 2016 Bus," blared a headline on The Atlantic Wire). 

Already, the law's most prominent critic, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, has signed on to that interpretation. “That was certainly revealing, and it suggests perhaps that Hillary Clinton is looking to run away from President Obama and Obamacare," Cruz said on Fox News Wednesday. "And that ought to be a signal to Democrats. This thing isn’t working."

Marshall said he doubts that was Clinton’s agenda. “Why does creating bad blood with this administration help Hillary?” he asked. “I don’t think it does.”

It was just a little over a year ago that Clinton made perhaps the most lucid and compelling case yet for the law, in a much-praised speech at last year’s Democratic convention, prompting Obama to call him the "secretary of explaining stuff."

Still, this is hardly the first time that the former president has made Team Obama do damage control. Last year, Clinton called Mitt Romney’s business record “sterling,” temporarily undermining the aggressive effort by the Obama campaign to portray the Republican presidential candidate as an exemplar of the 1%. And at a private event in June, Clinton took issue with Obama’s Syria policy, saying Obama or any president risked looking like “a total fool” if they worried too much about opinion polls.

Tensions between 44 and 42 are nothing new. During the 2008 presidential primary, Obama supporters accused Clinton of playing the race card when he tried to dismiss Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in South Carolina by noting that Jesse Jackson, too, had won the state during his own presidential bid.

And Mark Halperin and John Heilemann report in their new book Double Down that after the two played golf together in 2011, Obama allowed that he likes Clinton “in doses.”

Watch Clinton's explanation of his own plan in 1993.