THE president has already won on the health-care issue. Through his riveting speech he brought this problem to the front. It has become his issue. No matter what compromises ensue on the road to final legislation, Mr. Clinton will be able to claim victory when it is enacted.
Even Newt Gingrich at a Monitor breakfast grudgingly conceded this, adding that the president has done a masterful job in getting the attention of everyone on the need for health-care reform.
One caveat must be added to this prediction of certain triumph for Clinton: He must be careful not to self-destruct as he zealously sells his program. As he answered questions well into the night on the day following his big speech, Clinton was, once again, showing his admirable knowledge of the intricacies of his plan. But he went on hour after hour. Neither his TV hosts nor his people could shut him off. Polls show that an overwhelming segment of the public was bowled over by his speech and back him on this issue. So our advice to Clinton is: Don't talk it to death.
Another brilliant politician also enjoyed showing his mastery of detailed programs: Hubert Humphrey. Some observers contend he lost his 1960 effort to win the Democratic presidential nomination because of the huge amounts of money John F. Kennedy's father was throwing into his son's campaign. But Senator Humphrey damaged himself by talking audiences into boredom.
Once, in Huntington, W.Va., Humphrey, a very engaging fellow, turned what was supposed to be a half-hour speech into a two-hour ordeal. He just couldn't stop talking. It has been said of Humphrey that as a youngster he was the little boy who always had his hand up, always eager to tell how much he knew. Clinton must be careful lest he be viewed as another Humphrey.
If Clinton doesn't self-destruct in this way, he is on the threshhold of a memorable victory on what is a historic social program. Franklin D. Roosevelt has his name on Social Security, Lyndon Johnson's on Medicare - although initiated by President Kennedy. Now, no matter how the program will be shaped during the upcoming great debate on this subject, Clinton seems destined to become the father of extending health care to all Americans.
Now comes the hard part. The special interests already are shouting their dissent and applying pressure for changes and exemptions. The liquor lobby marked up a signal success even before the real battle began by persuading the president not to ask for a tax on liquor to help finance the health program.
Some experts in the health-care field point to what they say are major defects in Clinton's plan. One of them - Gregg Easterbrook, author of ``Surgeon Koop'' - writes that the program would be of great benefit to the poor, especially the non-welfare poor, and would benefit ``an important strata of the well-to-do, from physicians to hospital executives, and medical-supply company CEOs, by raising their incomes and by getting them off the hook for true health-care reform.''
He concludes that ``only the middle class will suffer, since if insurance premiums are restricted but doctor and hospital fees are not, the new health alliances will have little alternative but to ration care and restrict choice.''
A fierce debate lies ahead, and there should be one. Undoubtedly a better program could be and will be hammered out. But at the end of the day, universal health-care coverage will be credited to the president.