The Court Will Rule—and Then?

The Supreme Court’s decision today to take up the constitutionality of President Obama’s health-care reform in this session—they’ll hear oral arguments in March and rule by session’s end in June— means that the issue will be revived for voters just a few month before next November’s presidential election. This is probably good for Republicans no matter which way the justices rule. And, no matter which way the justices rule, I can’t see how this helps the Democrats.

There are basically three ways the court could go. They could uphold the individual mandate; they could strike it down, which would essentially negate the rest of the law; or they could rule the issue can’t be litigated until 2015, when the federal government would levy the first penalties on persons who refuse to purchase insurance. Additionally, the court will rule on the important but still subsidiary issue of whether the feds can require the states to pick up additional Medicaid expenditures starting in 2016—but the real issue remains the mandate.

So what would be the political consequences of the court’s ruling to uphold or strike down or punt on the mandate? If they uphold it, the Obama administration will claim vindication—which, plus two dollars, will entitle them to a short ride on the Metro. Upholding the mandate means that the right will conclude that the only way to get rid of "Obamacare" would be to repeal it legislatively by electing a Republican president, re-electing the Republican House, and winning a GOP-controlled filibuster-proof Senate. (Or even not filibuster proof, since a number of Democratic senators, under those conditions, would probably go along with repealing it.) The right, in other words, will go into the election even more stoked than it already is. The Democrats, meanwhile, from the president himself on down, bring no passion to Obamacare’s defense. It’s hard to envision Democratic get-out-the-vote campaigns centered on preserving health-care reform that never kindled the public’s, or even the Democratic base’s, imagination.

If, on the other hand, the court strikes down "Obamacare," Republicans will take it as vindication and feel more wind in their sails. Democrats will not campaign on battling to pass another version that does pass muster with the courts (as single-payer would, ironically, since it would be a universal governmental program like Medicare). In other words, a slight bump politically for the GOP; none for the Dems.

And if the court delays ruling until 2015, again, that places a premium on the outcome of the 2012 elections. Republicans would campaign on overturning Obamacare before it goes into effect. Democrats would campaign on, well, on something else.

The main issues the campaign will turn on, of course, are the economy and whatever the Obama people can dig up on his Republican opponent. But by deciding to rule on "Obamacare" before the election, the Court, knowingly or not, has given the Republicans a little boost at the polls.