How badly can Mitt Romney scare Americans about “Obamacare”? And could the presidential election hinge on the answer? These are the questions the Supreme Court provoked when it handed President Obama a huge victory on his signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act.
In the big picture, Obama keeps his health care law and the policies on which he expended so much political capital. Equally if not more important, he avoids a blow that would have weakened him as a leader and made him more vulnerable to defeat this fall. A constitutional law lecturer whose major legacy was declared unconstitutional?
Obama will not have to endure late-night jokes or political ads to that effect. He does lose a chance to run against the Supreme Court, but that’s always a risky proposition and is more than offset by the vindication made possible by the tie-breaking vote of Chief Justice John Roberts.
Mitt Romney and the Republicans have lost something more important -- one of the key issues with which they have been trying to paint Obama as a failed president. What they have left, and it’s no small thing, is a rallying cry to motivate conservatives.
“The last chance to repeal the Obamacare legislation lies with the election of Mitt Romney. So you would expect it to be a shot in the arm to the base,” said a GOP strategist.
Steven Law, CEO of the conservative advocacy group American Crossroads, predicted that the decision “will drive Republican voter intensity sky-high.” There was immediate evidence of that, both in the money Romney started to rake in and the rhetoric coming out of conservative groups. The family-values group Concerned Women for America said it was “outraged” by the justices’ decision and declared, “Shame on them!”
Romney and Obama, reacting to the decision, sounded like they were talking about two entirely different laws. Perhaps to compensate for having signed into law in Massachusetts the forerunner of what the GOP derisively calls “Obamacare,” Romney has been hyper-aggressive about the need for federal repeal, starting with waivers for all 50 states on Day One of his presidency. It may have been held constitutional, he said on Thursday, but it’s still bad policy and bad law. Vote for Obama, he said, if you want to have “a larger and larger government, more and more intrusive in your life, separating you and your doctor.”
Obama acknowledged the law was not popular, but said he pushed it because “I believed it was good for the country.” With the eyes of the nation on him, and the uncertain future of the law resolved -- at least until such time as there’s a Republican House, Senate, and president -- Obama made a rare high-profile pitch for how the law will help make insurance more affordable, more secure, and available to millions more people.
Rhetoric like Romney’s proved massively effective for Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections. That was partly because people were turned off by the wheeling and dealing that got the health care law passed. But there were other factors, including Obama’s failure to explain or sell the law in a major way, and the overriding reality of a painful economy.
It’s a pretty sure bet that most people, pro or con, aren’t going to change their minds about this law until it’s been in effect for years and they can see how it affects them personally. Furthermore, it’s likely that the still-slow economy will move back to center stage after this supercharged week. Obama and Romney have framed the Obamacare argument, but they may be talking into the wind.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have a long summer to contemplate a week in which a conservative court -- and Roberts in particular -- confounded them twice by upholding federal authority over states and individuals: first by striking down most of Arizona’s tough immigration law and then on Thursday with this.
Clearly, Republicans had widely assumed that the Court would throw out the law, or at least its individual mandate requiring most people to buy health insurance. Romney speculated this week that people weren’t "sleeping real well" at the White House and said it was a “moral failure” for Obama to pursue health care reform amid a recession.
House Speaker John Boehner, meanwhile, advised his members in advance not to “spike the ball.” Republican strategist John Feehery, a former Capitol Hill leadership aide, said that was wise counsel but “premature. … That was counting your chickens before they hatched.”
Two hours before the Court's decision, Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, sent out a fundraising e-mail saying that no matter what happened, “today is an important day to have Barack Obama’s back.” Few predicted that the Roberts Court would be among those having his back.