In Washington the most important question surrounding the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision is not how the ruling will impact the health care of millions of Americans. Nor is it about the implications of the decision for the future of the high court. Nor about the decision’s potential impact on the federal economy. Instead the most important question is, who won?
It is safe to say the answer is not Chief Justice John Roberts, the telegenic, young(ish) George W. Bush appointee whose mere mention was a certain Republican applause line in the waning days of the Bush administration (where applause lines, like spending cuts, faced dire shortages.) “The chief justice who singlehandedly saved Obamacare” was probably not the epitaph Bush partisans expected when Roberts was nominated for the high court. It is possible that over time Roberts’s curious decision to cite Obamacare as a mammoth, but constitutional, tax increase will provide more ammunition for those seeking to repeal the law. That is not the attitude of most conservatives today, however, who now refer to their onetime judicial hero as a sellout and “traitor.”
As for the presidential race, the decision at first blush is clearly a victory for the president. Obama is saved the embarrassment of the Supreme Court ruling his signature legislation a blatant violation of America’s bedrock constitutional principles. He also is spared the agony of having to introduce new health-care legislation, which almost certainly would have led to another bitter photo-finish fight in Congress.
In the longer term, however, the decision is more likely a victory for Gov. Mitt Romney, who remains in search of an issue—any issue—to rally a conservative base that still views his campaign with the enthusiasm of a dentist appointment, followed by a trip to the DMV, en route to a funeral, after a time-share presentation. “Repeal Obamacare Now” presents Romney’s best opportunity to change that sentiment, by channeling the fury and disappointment of Red State America behind him.
Indeed, within minutes of the landmark decision, the blogosphere was awash with people expressing outrage at the court—some making up in umbrage what it lacked in coherence. Echoing a multitude denouncing America’s move to national health care, one person on BuzzFeed wrote: “Screw this Commie country. I’m moving to Canada.” Yes, Canada, where national health care is nearly three decades old.
Team Rombot already has proven more adroit at handling its reaction to the Obamacare decision than it was last week, when the Supreme Court upheld a key provision in Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law. Romney’s response back then was so weak it would have had trouble besting Chris Matthews and Dana Perino on Jeopardy.
This time Romney’s response was far more forthright. “What the court did not do on its last day in session,” Romney said, “I'll do on my first day as president and act to repeal Obamacare.” As a rallying cry the governor could do worse, though of course it almost certainly will not be that simple if he is elected. It is, for example, highly unlikely that a President Romney would repeal some of the more popular provisions of the Obamacare law, such as preventing insurance companies from denying coverage for people with preexisting conditions and allowing children to stay longer on their parent’s health insurance. The former Massachusetts governor, always more centrist than his past two presidential campaigns, will undoubtedly be sensitive to the charge that his health-care policies would leave sick children languishing in America’s gutters. (See, for example, the headline in The Onion after today’s decision: “Republicans, leukemia team up to repeal health-care law.” Indeed, Romney has appointed as the head of his transition team a major defender of the law. Another Romney backer outright said Obamacare would never be repealed.
In an odd way, another winner of the Supreme Court’s decision is the Supreme Court. Not because of this result—which may prove one of the weirder decisions in recent judicial history—but because of the justices’ continued ability to surprise (and sometimes embarrass) those who cover it. For weeks pundits decreed that Obamacare’s fate hinged on the whims of “moderate” Justice Anthony Kennedy—Time magazine even plastered an uncomfortably unforgiving image of his face on its cover, under the headline “The Decider.” Nobody expected the surprise coming from a conservative favorite, which may demonstrate only that conservatives be more circumspect with their favoritism in the future.