What’s the next important thing to look for? The verdict of independent voters in the coming batch of polls about the Supreme Court decision, which I expect we’ll start seeing next week. Whether centrist voters are buying the rhetorical jalopy Mitt Romney is trying to sell them will be key here. I think most of them won’t. The reason is not only that Romney’s claims are so utterly bogus and hypocritical. It also has to do with what we know about how centrist and unaffiliated voters think and what matters to them. They’ll get sick and tired of “Repeal Obamacare,” and they’ll get sick and tired of it well before Election Day.
It’s first worth noting that we’re talking about a small slice of the population here. While unaffiliated voters will make up 35 or maybe even 40 percent of the electorate in November, most of those—a good 80 percent of them, say experts—are, as the pollsters say, “identifiers.” They lean pretty strongly toward one party or the other. They like to be enrolled as neutral for various reasons, but they’re basically Republicans or Democrats. That leaves 20 percent of (let’s say) 37 percent, or about 7 to 7.5 percent, who are really “swing” voters. Polls can’t really measure them; they’re too small a sample and too hard to find. But the margins that these polls turn up among independents can give us a reasonably accurate indication what the true swing voters think.
So the polls are going to ask if people approve of the decision. My guess: independents will lean in favor. Maybe with a large enough undecided that the yeas are a plurality rather than a majority, but still. A one-day survey by Gallup more or less affirms my guess. The public is exactly split on the ruling, 46 to 46 percent, with independents slightly approving by 45 to 42 percent. (A Daily Beast poll has slightly gloomier findings.)
Why do I think independents will tilt slightly in favor of the court ruling and, in turn, the act now? Here we get to what matters to these voters. What matters to them is having one party check the other. Independents always, for example, want divided government. And they like it when one party checks the other. That’s what they want to see, so that each side’s excesses are curtailed by the other. To people with strong ideological commitments, this is dysfunction and paralysis, and the thing that pisses us all off to no end. To swing voters, it’s reassuring.
It’s therefore my hunch that even some people who didn’t like the mandate will think that this process, ugly as it all was, worked and settled things. Okay, the Democrats got all the power and went kinda nuts with their law. The Republicans had a point and a right to challenge it. But now it’s upheld. And John Roberts said so, for criminy sakes. The check was performed, right against left, judicial against executive, and Obama was vindicated. The fight is over. Let’s move on. That’s where I think most true swing voters will land. To perform one more mathematical slice—roughly 60 percent of the 7 percent.
This next round of the Obamacare battle will be a crucial and fascinating test of the degree to which the “America died Thursday” dead-ender base controls Romney. So far he’s done nothing but play to it, with his lies about the alleged Medicare cuts and tax increases and all the rest. But there are limits on what he can say, and he and the Republicans in Congress won’t be able to attack the health law in the same way. The congressional Republicans can get away with talking only about repeal, but a presidential candidate has to talk about the replace part, and on that, Romney has nothing to say.
In addition, Romney better watch it, flinging the tax-increase charge. If the Obama-law penalty is a tax, so was the Massachusetts penalty. We’re going to see conservatives—and Romney himself, of course—come up with creative reasons as to why that’s not so. Meanwhile, here’s how Romney put it in a July 30, 2009, op-ed in USA Today in which he’s telling Obama that insuring everyone doesn’t have to cost gajillions of dollars: “Using tax penalties, as we did, or tax credits, as others have proposed, encourages ‘free riders’ to take responsibility for themselves rather than pass their medical costs on to others.” I hope the Democrats have that one tucked away and ready to use.
But the more the Republicans pound away at the law, the more they holler about tyranny and freedom, the more Romney vows repeal on day one of his administration—the more they and he will seem completely out of it to a country that, believe it or not, doesn’t want to fight about this thing forever, and doesn’t want another summer of rage like we had in 2009. Yes, bring that on, too: I’m sure another Koch-brothers production of purple-faced lunatics shouting at members of Congress will really impress swing voters. Come on, Americans for Prosperity, I’m counting on you!
These people never know when to stop. They can’t stop, because to them, freedom itself is at stake. And like a man who keeps telling the same joke over and over until he gets a laugh, they’re never going to let the rest of us forget it.