The best way to gauge which party believes it has the advantage on an issue is often to observe which side talks about it more.
Long before Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling largely upholding the health care law, Democrats had virtually abandoned efforts to defend the centerpiece of President Obama’s reform initiative: the mandate on uninsured individuals to purchase coverage, with help from government subsidies. In fact, federal estimates project that those subsidies would cover three-fourths or more of the cost of the typical insurance plan for an uninsured family earning up to about $55,000. At that rate, the mandate might have looked less like an intrusion on personal liberty than a pretty good deal for Americans who lack, or fear they might someday lose, health insurance.
But Democrats, including the president, focused on more immediately attractive (although less central) components of the law and never seriously contested the GOP attacks on their plan’s main arch—which, ironically, first emerged as the Republican alternative to President Clinton’s health proposal. Even before the Court saved the mandate, that strategy had failed: Polls showed that a large percentage of Americans (especially whites) did not believe the law would benefit their family.
On immigration, though, the story flips. When the Supreme Court on Monday issued its ruling partially upholding but largely overturning Arizona’s tough enforcement law against undocumented immigrants, it was Mitt Romney who ducked. After his press aides strenuously (and almost comically) evaded comment, Romney delivered subdued remarks in which he vaguely lamented that the Court had not provided states “more latitude.”
Compare that with his muscular insistence, at a February GOP debate in Arizona, that as president he would drop the federal litigation against the state’s law “on Day One.” On Monday, Romney said that Obama’s immigration policies had produced a “muddle.” But after Romney’s unqualified embrace of Arizona’s initiative during the primaries, he was the one who sounded tongue-tied this week.
By contrast, Obama’s response to the ruling was crisp. He praised the Court’s decision to strike down most of the law and reaffirmed his opposition to the key provision that the justices allowed, for now, to stand: the requirement that Arizona’s law-enforcement officials check the immigration status of anyone they believe may be in the country illegally.
Each side of that response was revealing. Romney’s gauzy reaction, following a speech last week to Latino elected officials that was almost as substance free, captures a candidate nearly paralyzed on these issues. With polls showing Obama positioned to equal or exceed the two-thirds support he won among Hispanics in 2008, Romney is clearly trying to temper his tone on immigration. But so far, he hasn’t renounced any of the hard-line positions (such as “self-deportation”) that he took during the primaries.
This balancing act suggests that Romney is willing to court Hispanics only so far as doing so doesn’t endanger his support among the voters most agitated about illegal immigration, particularly the older and blue-collar whites who polls show are providing him with huge margins over the president. With that calculation, Romney will test the GOP’s ability, in a country rapidly diversifying, to still squeeze out a winning majority almost entirely from white voters.
This week revealed Obama’s contrasting choice. The president’s denunciation of the Arizona “show your papers” provision defied recent polls finding that nearly three-fifths of all adults, and about two-thirds of both working-class whites and white seniors, support the idea. Yet Obama’s criticism may resonate powerfully with many Hispanics who are viscerally offended by the law.
His choice continued a striking pattern of recent months. By endorsing gay marriage, championing free contraception in health insurance plans (over resistance from the Catholic Church), and administratively legalizing young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents, Obama has repeatedly subordinated the concerns of older and blue-collar whites to the preferences of the Democrats’ emerging coalition: minorities, young people, and culturally liberal college-educated whites, especially women. “He’s taking positions that are strongly opposed by culturally conservative whites, basically conceding that he is going to do poorly among them, in a conscious effort to increase enthusiasm among the coalition that put him in office,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres.
Each strand of that Democratic “coalition of the ascendant,” as I’ve called it, is growing as a share of the electorate. But Obama’s tightening embrace of its priorities nonetheless represents a historic gamble. Romney could still beat him by amassing large enough margins among the economically strained, culturally conservative older, and blue-collar whites whom Obama’s recent decisions may further provoke.
The president isn’t conceding those voters, who once anchored his party’s base: His attacks on Romney’s Bain Capital experience largely target them. But far more than previous Democratic nominees, Obama seems willing to risk alienating them. As longtime Democratic strategist William Galston observes, “Obama is betting his presidency on mobilizing … this new [coalition].” Win or lose, Obama seems destined to speed the Democrats’ evolution away from the New Deal coalition centered on working-class whites toward one that revolves around the two titanic social forces he embodies: rising education levels and growing diversity.
This article appears in the June 30, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.