It’s a virtual certainty that, if the Supreme Court overturns the individual mandate or the Affordable Care Act wholesale, liberals will find a way to blame each other—or the administration—for its failure to anticipate the constitutional challenge. Yesterday, both The Washington Post and The New York Times ran stories in which critics and observers laid blame on the administration for its tactical strategy, and the bill’s authors for using the mandate to achieve near-universal health-care coverage. Here’s the Times:
With the benefit of hindsight, some advocates said they would have been better off framing the law more explicitly as a tax, although doing so would have been politically explosive. Short of that, some said, strategy alternatives like slowing down the case still might not have made a difference.
This strikes me as misguided. Underlying the assumption that the Court will strike down the individual mandate—or the Affordable Care Act as a whole—is the idea that the current Supreme Court is partisan in a way that’s never been true before. It’s one thing to stack the Court with Justices who are ideologically favorable; it’s something else entirely to stack the Court with fellow partisans, who are primarily loyal to the Republican Party and not any discernible legal principle.
Whether this has happened is an open question, but if it has—as James Fallows argued yesterday—then it’s silly to think that liberals could have avoided disaster by framing the law as a tax, or changing the structure of the mandate. Remember, when the law was being crafted in 2009, or when it was signed in 2010, the spurious distinction between "activity" and "inactivity" hadn’t been devised yet, and no one was concerned the the mandate would violate the Constitution. But eventually, movement conservatives developed a legal principle that would allow them to argue the case.
Likewise, if the mandate were framed as a tax—or even if the Affordable Care Act were shaped as “Medicare-for-all”—movement conservatives would have devised a legal doctrine that challenged its constitutionality.
Because of this, if the Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act, liberals should refrain from turning their guns on each other. Instead, they should take aim at the Supreme Court. A Court that acts as another arm of the Republican Party is one that doesn’t deserve the standing it claims or the respect it demands. Partisan institutions should be treated as such, and liberals should do as much as possible to challenge the legitimacy of the Court.