Health-Care Reform's Supreme Court Showdown

06.30.12

Obamacare Supporters Ousted in the Last Election Are Cheered by Court Ruling

Supporting the Affordable Care Act cost some legislators their seats. The court ruling provides some satisfaction, writes Allison Yarrow.

They hesitate to call it vindication. But politicians who lost office for supporting Obamacare are some of the happiest campers after the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding most of the law.

“I’m energized, and it's not just the coffee,” said an elated Tom Perriello, a former Virginia congressman, shortly after the ruling was announced.

“I knew in my heart that they would rule with us,” said former North Carolina congressman Bob Etheridge, who served that state’s 2nd Congressional District for more than 13 years. Etheridge likened the decision to America’s pastime, particularly for opponents: “It’s like playing baseball. You may really believe that ball coming across that plate is not a strike, but if an umpire calls it a strike, it’s a strike.”

Etheridge and Perriello are two of many senators and congressmen and women who were ousted from office in 2010, in large part for voting for the Affordable Care Act. Theirs and others’ losses were marked in part by dirty tricks—political wrangling like expensive attack ads by outside interests pitting them against seniors or for death panels, gotcha tactics, and even vandalism by alleged Tea Party radicals.

Etheridge apologized after a video surfaced of him manhandling “a couple of hired goons from the Republican National Committee” who cut him off on the sidewalk and demanded he share whether he backed the president’s agenda. The video was viewed nearly 170,000 times.

When a former Marine bad-mouthed government programs at a North Carolina health-care forum, Etheridge asked him, “Do you have health care?” insinuating the government role in providing it. The video’s poster couched the event as “Mr. Etheridge humiliating himself.”

“Here’s what bothers me about all this. People who vote to deny it are the first ones to step up to take government subsidies,” Etheridge said.

Looking back on that time, Etheridge, who ran a last-minute, unsuccessful campaign for governor in his state—he characterized the loss as “eight weeks and not enough votes”—calls the events in the videos “the kind of ugly, nasty, divisive politics I hope American people are ready to move past.” But with a House vote demanded by opponents to overturn the law—scheduled for after July 4—moving beyond the divide could still be hard.

Alan Grayson, a former Florida congressman, said he was unseated by negative ads run by 60 Plus, the conservative seniors initiative that positions itself across the aisle from AARP. The group said it spent nearly $1 million to topple Grayson and a neighboring district’s congresswoman, accusing them of cutting “$500 billion from Medicare” and willingly sticking it to seniors. He was a vocal advocate of the public option while in Congress, and said he thought that when he left office that the health-care conversation would finally be over, too. Grayson is running to reclaim his post now, and says despite opposition to the law from much of Florida, including its governor, Rick Scott, his district favors the reform and considers it sound policy.

“The constitutional arguments against the law were farcical. Nobody gave them credence until the right manufactured excuses,” said Grayson, who studied constitutional law at Harvard. “I never felt that there was any question about this. It’s good that the Supreme Court saw the light.”

“The frustrating thing about being in Congress was that facts didn’t seem to matter as much as they should,” said former Virginia congressman Tom Perriello. “Our politics are better when facts matter.”

Perriello, now president and CEO at the Center for American Progress, predicted Chief Justice John Roberts’s turn to side with the liberal justices and uphold the individual mandate, the backbone of the law, when he spoke to The Daily Beast in March. He said Roberts, who is known for caring how he is portrayed in the media, prioritized his legacy with this decision, choosing to side with the Constitution over the Articles of Confederation, the country’s founding document that empowered individuals over big government. It’s a debate that many find strange to see raging in the 21st century.

“The frustrating thing about being in Congress was that facts didn’t seem to matter as much as they should. Our politics are better when facts matter,” he said.

The bitterness hit for Perriello when alleged Tea Party activists targeted his family and threatened their safety. Authorities found a cut propane-gas tank at the home of Perriello's brother, and suspected the attack was intended for him. Perriello hails from a family of doctors, so he said there was no way he wouldn't champion sweeping health-care coverage for all.

Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu “suffered the slings and arrows of public opinion,” in 2009 and 2010, while she was still debating her position on it, according to a former aide. Her own staff members said they had no idea whether or not the senator would support the law even as she entered the chamber to vote. “I remember crafting two statements at every point,” another former aide said.

That aide remembers an August 2009 town-hall meeting in the state in which health-care-reform skeptics tailgated with Louisiana State University tents, and booed and accosted the senator and her staff before the debate could begin. This predated the Senate bill (there was only a draft in the House), and Landrieu was far from decided on whether or not she would support what would be drawn up. She even sustained attacks from multiple Republican governors while trying to keep her Senate seat, which she still holds.

When the Supreme Court ruled, former and current Landrieu staff, including those who helped author parts of the Senate bill, circulated celebratory emails, and shared moments of reminiscence—sleepless nights they now deem worth the uphill climb and opposition vitriol.

“[It] will improve health outcomes for our entire population. Now that the Supreme Court has made this clear by its ruling, it is the obligation of the states to fully implement and expedite the Affordable Care Act,” Landrieu said in a statement.

Despite all the spitball lobbing, lying, and rage unleashed on Democrats in 2010, the former legislators who supported a bill that could save some 45,000 lives and insure millions for the first time are happy about it being upheld by the land’s highest court. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that many of them want back in the game.

“Teddy Roosevelt is smiling right now,” Etheridge said.