There is counter-intuitive, and then there is really counterintuitive: advancing an argument so hard to believe that, well, it’s hard for people to believe you. Congratulations to Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic for pulling off an exercise in the latter category: making the case that Hillary Clinton’s original health care plan, far from being a serious mistake that must be explained away (like, say, an enthusiastic vote in favor of the Iraq war), in fact reflects well on her prescience and judgment.

As Cohn notes, I made a similar case in this magazine twelve years ago. Journalistic insider-style complications abound here, in Anthony Powellish rococo fashion, so let me mention them:

[Rococo disclosure section: My article included an attack on an (error-laden, tendentious, and dishonest) article by one Elizabeth McCaughey, which was surprisingly important in building opposition to the original Clinton health plan. McCaughey presented herself in the article as a dispassionate expert observer; a few month later, she was the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of New York. She served one term – before her running mate, Governor George Pataki, pushed her off the ticket in his run for a second term in 1998. Then she became a Democrat and announced that she would run against Pataki for governor in that same race. After losing in the Democratic primary, she became the Liberal party’s nominee and ended up with 2% or 3% of the vote in the general election. McCaughey’s article was published in The New Republic, whose editor at the time was Andrew Sullivan — now my colleague and comrade at the Atlantic. And, my article drew on extensive discussions after the Clinton plan’s failure with its main manager, Ira Magaziner – who decided to tell his story to me, after refusing most other requests for interviews, because we had been friends since graduate school.]

With all that out of the way: Cohn’s article is right, and he has obvious standing to speak, given his excellent recent book about the health-care morass, Sick. It will be interesting to see whether the Hillary Clinton of this presidential campaign dares make a similarly counterintuitive case in favor of the Hillary of old. My guess is No, for reasons prefigured by the last words of my article 12 years ago:

During the 1992 campaign the Clinton war room excelled at answering negative charges immediately, before damaging impressions could set in. But even flatly untrue attacks on the health plan went unanswered: direct-mail campaigns saying that everyone would have to go to a government clinic, daily doses of misinformation from Rush Limbaugh, TV advertisements fanning McCaughey-style fears of jail terms for people who wanted to stick with their family doctor. Last March The Wall Street Journal found that a panel of citizens preferred the provisions of the Clinton plan to the main alternatives–when each plan was described by its contents alone. But when pollsters explained that the preferred group of provisions was in fact “the Clinton plan,” most members of the panel changed their minds and opposed it. They knew, after all, that Clinton’s plan could never work.

Or, as Cohn says about Hillary Clinton at the end of his article:

No candidate in the presidential race knows more about health care than she does. No candidate has a stronger, more proven record of fighting to expand coverage. And, yet, no candidate has to act with the caution that she does. Achieving universal health care will probably require the leadership of somebody who can push public opinion–and it’s not clear that she can do so, at least, not as long as Hillarycare’s reputation remains what it is. It’s a shame, really, because if there were any justice, she’d have the best one-liner on health care of any candidate out there: “I was right the first time.”

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