President Obama won a major legal victory on Thursday. The question now is whether Mitt Romney and the Republicans can translate the divided Supreme Court’s decision on the health-care law into a political victory in November.
Republicans were clearly anticipating a different outcome. All their rhetoric, all their body language and many of their preparations were based on the assumption that the justices 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 ruling was announced.
Instead, it was the White House and the Democrats who carried the day. The decision will help Obama secure a political legacy for having enacted — against huge and united Republican opposition — the most far-reaching piece of social legislation since Medicare and Medicaid almost half a century ago.
The decision also will give the president a fresh opportunity to try to win the political argument over the law, or at least do a better job of trying to sway a skeptical electorate than he and his team have done since the measure was enacted. “Today’s decision,” he said, “was a victory for people all over this country whose lives will be more secure because of this law and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold it.”
There was clear surprise about the court’s decision, especially the route that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the four liberal justices who joined him took to uphold the controversial requirement that all Americans purchase health-care coverage or pay a penalty. But their ruling left the political divisions as sharply etched as ever. What the justices did was to send the issue back into the political arena for ultimate resolution.
William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar, noted in the run-up to the decision announcement that “winners celebrate and losers mobilize.” Mobilizing is what Republicans intend to do. They asserted that their setback will provide the motivation in the GOP base to produce a big victory in November.
Republicans returned with even greater emphasis to the rallying cry that has sustained them since Obama signed the measure into law more than two years ago: “Repeal and replace.” With the most controversial element of the law declared constitutional, the avenue left for Republicans to change it is the ballot box in November.
Romney sounded that theme when he spoke not long after the court ruled, saying he would do on Day One what the court did not do. “If we want to get rid of Obamacare,” he said, “we have to get rid of President Obama.”
Republicans think they have several potentially potent arguments to carry into the election. The first is that the health-care law and the mandate constitute a huge tax increase on the American people. The second, long used by conservatives, is that the law remains an unacceptable expansion of power for the federal government and a huge overreach by the president.