Gaming out the politics of the Supreme Court’s health care ruling

at 03:51 PM ET, 06/27/2012

In less than 24 hours, the Supreme Court will hand down its ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the defining achievement of President Obama’s first term in office.


A view of the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, June 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
The stakes — from a political and a policy perspective — are absolutely massive although, as we have noted, public opinion on the law itself seems to be relatively cemented.

While the ruling isn’t likely to drastically change how people perceive the law, it could well have a major impact on how voters perceive the two parties — and their respective candidates for president — with 131 days left before the November election.

Below we examine the three most likely decisions from the Court — affirmation of the law, rejection of the law and some middle ground — and how the two parties would seek to shape them politically.

We’ll know what the Court decides by (around) 10 am tomorrow. Until then, the political world waits with bated breath. (Looking for something to do between now and then? Use this interactive to find out what the different rulings from the Court could mean to your health care.)

Scenario 1: The Court strikes the law down

What Republican strategists will say: We said from the start that the law was unconstitutional and, more importantly in political terms, people didn’t want it. The highest court in the country just affirmed our first point and polling has long affirmed the second one.

In raw political terms, not only does the ruling make our base wild with excitement but to the extent there are any undecided voters left in the country they will see the Court’s decision as a tipping point on how they feel about health care and Obama more broadly. And they will tip toward us.

There is no expectation among undecided voters that Republicans will offer a detailed replacement for the health care law between now and November. He is the president — and we never wanted to overhaul the health care system in the first place.

What Democratic strategists will say: No, this isn’t ideal. But the idea that this is an unmitigated political disaster for us is ridiculous.

First of all, our base is going to go ballistic about what we will call a partisan Court offering a partisan decision in an election year. The President has already proven that going after the Court — think Citizens United during his 2011 State of the Union speech — is no longer off limits and can even be good politics.

Second, the onus is now on Republicans to show some semblance of a plan on what they want to see changed in the health care system — and how they would change it. We have always known that their best when attacking our proposals, not defending their own. We are going to push them like crazy to say what they want to do — and now they can no longer hide behind the protective cover of Obamacare.

Scenario 2: The Court upholds the law

What Republican strategists will say: We played the expectations game poorly in advance of the decision but after oral arguments on the case we had almost no choice. EVERYONE thought they were going to overturn at least some part of the law and no matter how much we tried to remind people that reading the tea leaves on the Court is a fool’s errand, no one would listen.

All that said, there’s plenty of good in this for us. We can now make the case that the only way to get rid of Obama’s health care law is to elect Romney president. If you thought our base was enthusiastic before the ruling, wait until you see how they respond to that message.

And, no matter what the Court says, talking about health care is still a political loser for Obama — and Democrats. Look at the 2010 election: Democratic candidates across the country tried to run from health care — and it still didn’t work. That’s why Speaker Boehner and his crew in the House will move forward in an effort to repeal the law now. People don’t like this law. They’ve made their minds up on that. If this ruling encourages Obama to embrace his health care law more fully, that’s great news for us.

What Democratic strategists will say: We shocked the world! No one thought that the Court would uphold the law but they did. And now, after spending hundreds of millions on ads opposing health care and lining up their elected officials against it for the last two years, Republicans will have to deal with the reality that the highest court in the country — and one where five of the Justices were appointed by GOP presidents — has now given it their stamp of approval.

No, Obama won’t run hot and heavy on health care but he can now use it as a way to make the argument that he was elected to do big things — and things past presidents simply couldn’t pull off. While Republicans will still attack the law, Obama can simply refer back to this ruling — remember that the Court remains one of the most respected institutions in the country — to silence them.

Scenario 3: The Court throws out the individual mandate but leaves the rest of the law intact.

What Republican strategists will say: For most people, this ruling amounts to a muddle. And we win a muddle since more people disapprove of the law than approve of it — and have for a very long time.

The Obama Administration will now also be forced to figure out how to make the other parts of the law work, which means an extended process discussion about health care that is nothing but good for us.

Plus, the thing that our base hated the most in the law was the mandate. With that gone, we can make the case that we won at court and we are going to win at the ballot box.

What Democratic strategists will say: Given the predictions of doom and gloom after oral arguments, how can this be anything but a win for us?

Republicans successfully made the individual mandate the centerpiece of their messaging against the law, so what will they do now that it’s gone? Answer: nothing. And we can now spend all of our time talking about things like no more discrimination based on pre-existing conditions and keeping your kids on your health plan until they are 26 — all of which, oh by the way, are in­cred­ibly popular with the public.

The Court ruling takes the heat off of us and allows us to shine some light on what’s really in the law that helps people. And without their main talking point — the individual mandate — what the heck are Republicans going to hang their hat on?

 
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