Thursday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the bulk of the Affordable Care Act came as a shock to both sides. Conservative opponents of the law they derided as “Obamacare” had gained confidence after justices questioned its legality in opening arguments. Progressive supporters girded themselves to castigate a “conservative” court they widely expected to throw out the law. Even President Obama at times seemed to have resigned himself to losing. The surprise ruling gave his reelection campaign a tremendous boost and made his rivals’ job harder.
Now that the judicial process has run its course, it’s back to politics.
Obama’s reelection campaign would have been in far more serious trouble if the court had struck down the law. Recent polls show the majority of Americans dislike his health care package. That margin could only have grown if he’d emerged as the president who gave us an unconstitutional law. Instead, he’s in the more tenable position of defending something that’s officially kosher under the court’s latest interpretation of the founding fathers’ principles.
Republican Mitt Romney, who promises to launch the fight against Obamacare on his first day in office if he’s elected president, is in an awkward spot. He must attack a law that many in his own party liken to state legislation he promoted as governor of Massachusetts.
The central argument in the Supreme Court case – that the federal government cannot constitutionally require anyone to buy any product, including health insurance – fell apart under scrutiny from a 5-4 majority of justices. Chief Justice John Roberts joined with liberals Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor in defining the “individual mandate” as imposing a tax – to be paid by individuals who choose of their own free will not to buy insurance – rather than forcing purchase.
The distinction is academic to most, who’ll realize that as a practical matter, they have no real choice. Depending on the size of the “tax” to be collected from the noncompliant, few may be prepared to go without insurance if they can scrape up the money for the premiums. If they lack the necessary cash, the government will help them, just as it already helps poor people who need medical treatment.
Roberts, who wrote the opinion, offered no judgment on the merits of the tax or, for that matter, the whole act. “Because the Constitution permits such a tax,” he said, “it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.” Pontius Pilate could not have washed his hands more deliberately.
The challenge facing Republicans who hope to unseat Obama, win majorities in both chambers of Congress and dismantle the health care law has become more formidable. Instead of finishing off an incumbent who got slapped down by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court, they have to spring off the mat themselves and face a reinvigorated adversary. They’ll try to convince voters his plan will create a monstrous bureaucracy that deepens the deficit, stifles prosperity and ruins American health care. At this point, they already bear the loser’s stigma.
Democrats who’d previously been firing preemptive shots at a court they expected to kill their treasured new entitlement could hardly have hoped for a more advantageous outcome.