WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama won a major legal victory in the Supreme Court on Thursday. The question now is whether Mitt Romney and the Republicans can translate the divided court’s decision on the challenge to the Affordable Care Act into a political victory in November.
Republicans were clearly anticipating a different decision. All their rhetoric, all their body language and all their preparations were based on the assumption that the court would deal a significant setback to the president, at a minimum by striking down the individual mandate. After all, it was Republican leaders - strategists - who were warning their colleagues this week not to gloat once the court ruled.
Instead it was the White House and the Democrats who carried the day. For Obama, the decision helps to secure a political legacy for having enacted - against huge and united Republican opposition - the most sweeping piece of social legislation since Medicare and Medicaid almost half a century ago.
But the decision gives Obama a fresh opportunity to sell his health-care law, something he and the White House have failed to do effectively over the course of his presidency. His remarks after the court ruling focused almost exclusively on how the changes in the law will make health-care coverage more secure for all Americans. He called the decision a victory for “people all over the country.”
There was clear surprise over the court’s decision, and especially the route the court took to uphold the controversial requirement that all Americans purchase health care or pay a penalty. But the dynamics of the political debate were not significantly changed by what Chief Justice John Roberts and the four other justices who joined him in the majority did.
What remained uncertain Thursday was whether the instant predictions about the political fallout would be any more reliable than predictions about what the court would do on health care.
William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar, noted in the run-up to the decision, “Winners celebrate and losers mobilize.” That’s the hope of disappointed Republicans now, that the setback in the court will only re-energize their base to produce a big victory in November. But elated Democrats saw opportunities to use the decision to appeal to swing voters who could decide the outcome in November.
Republicans will attempt to stoke anger on the right by asserting that the only way to change what they don’t like about the health-care law is by defeating Obama in November. That was precisely the message from presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney shortly after the court ruling. Romney said he would do on day one what the court failed to do Thursday. “If we want to get rid of Obamacare,” he said, “we have to get rid of President Obama.”
With the law still intact, Republicans returned with even greater emphasis to the rallying cry of “repeal and replace” that has sustained them since Obama signed the act two years ago. Obamacare has been a powerful motivating force among grass-roots conservatives and will probably continue to be one in the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s ruling.
Republicans believe that they have several potentially potent arguments to carry into this fight. The first is that the health-care law now represents a huge tax increase on the American people, an argument GOP strategists seized on after the decision. The second, one long used by conservatives, is that the law remains a huge overreach by Obama and an unacceptable expansion of power for the federal government.
In advance of the decision, veteran Republican strategists were arguing that, even with a victory in the high court, the president would be saddled with a law that remains generally unpopular with the public and deeply disliked by the Republican base - “the single most unpopular thing Obama has done,” as one strategist put it.
Strategist Terry Holt summed up the Republican reaction to the ruling in an e-mail Thursday morning: “What an accomplishment for Obama,” he said. “He is author of the most massive new tax in American history. And for what? To finance an unpopular law that threatens the quality of heath care for millions of American seniors. This will galvanize the right and leave the center of the Democratic Party to the mercy of an angry electorate.”
But the strategy of pressing for total repeal may not be as simple as some Republicans believe. Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, said before the ruling that it was important, in pressing for repeal, for Republicans to be cognizant of the fact that many of the provisions of the law are popular.
“People strongly dislike Obamacare, but they’ve kind of forgotten why they don’t like it,” he said. “But they do remember what they do like.”
Democrats certainly saw it differently, believing that the president can now promise to implement the law as enacted, remind voters of the provisions they like and move back to the economy as quickly as possible. “This fits the mood of the public,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said. “They want to keep what works and move on to fix what doesn’t.”
But Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said Obama still may have trouble converting public opinion about the health-care law, even with the Supreme Court on his side. “The constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act pales, politically, beside the need . . . to make your case for re-election tethered to a program that remains widely unpopular,” he said.
The court ruling put health care back into the center of the political debate. How much either side chooses to make the issue front and center in the campaign by October is another question that involves some hard choices politically. Some Republicans were skeptical that it would be smart for Romney to try to elevate it.
“This is going to be the biggest week of the campaign, until we get to the June jobs report next week,” said Republican strategist Vin Weber. “I don’t underestimate it, but I think the June jobs report is still more import. That economy issue writ larger is going to be the dominant issue of the campaign.”
Ken Khachigian, a California-based Republican strategist, said the issue will have “zero influence” on the outcome of the election. “Romney would make a huge mistake if he allowed himself to be diverted from the core economic issues,” he said.
More than anything, the court decision heightened and helped to clarify the choice for voters in November, a choice between the starkly different philosophies and sharply contrasting policy paths offered by the president and his challenger for dealing with the country’s big issues, whether health care or the economy.
As political scientist Merle Black of Emory University put it, “American politics just became even more divisive and polarized.”