Philip Klein argues that the outcomes of the Scott Walker election and the Supreme Court ruling could make June a pivotal month for the 2012 election. He’s obviously right. But I disagree with his assumptions regarding how a Supreme Court ruling will play:
Even if the court merely overturns the mandate forcing individuals to purchase government-approved insurance policies, it would reshuffle the political deck ahead of the presidential election. Suddenly, Mitt Romney would have an easy retort to Obama’s efforts to tie the national health care law to the one Romney signed in Massachusetts — namely that the Massachusetts law was done in a constitutionally permissible way. Such a ruling would also strengthen the attack on Obama’s handling of the economy, because he will have spent more than a year of his presidency pushing health care legislation that turned out to be a waste of time.
If the Court does indeed strike down only the individual mandate (plus the requirements of guaranteed issue and community rating, as Obama’s Department of Justice has suggested they must), it will likely prove to be of little benefit to either party. While a portion of Obama’s law is struck, and that’s certainly a rebuke, it actually removes the aspect of the law which was most unpopular. According to Gallup, 70% of Independents and even 56% of Democrats think the individual mandate is unconstitutional. Kaiser has consistently found that a majority of all Americans believe the mandate will be ruled unconstitutional. Striking down the mandate lets the air out of the balloon, and less time will be spent talking about health care.
However, much of the rest of the law is more popular, and Obama will have the opportunity to tout those aspects without the political pain the mandate creates. In that sense, the Court may be throwing Obama a lifeline – he can go back to touting all the aspects of the law people like, ignoring the fact that the private insurance market is doomed, and just promising more candy and unicorns.
A partial strikedown also creates the most difficulty for Republicans, who will be forced to figure out what to do with a broken Obamacare. Klein correctly notes that the Court’s decision could “make a legislative repeal process either less arduous or completely unnecessary” – should the mandate alone be struck down, Republican replacement methods become far messier and more difficult. There’s already disagreement among Hill Republicans about which tactics to take. As I’ve noted before, the endgame here likely looks like some form of “improvement” for Obamacare, not full repeal and replace. And the base won’t like that at all.
So striking down the mandate would be a political wash. On the other hand, I think if the Court takes one of the other two options – either upholding the law or striking down the whole law – it hurts Obama dramatically. In the former path, because getting rid of him would be the only way to stop the mandate (which would be a great way for Republicans to make the case to independents), and in the latter because it would be a total rebuke to his policy approach.
In other words: Obama’s got no good outcome for the last week of June, but he could have a not-bad one.