Over the past month or two, as the president’s political position has continued to erode and he becomes more vulnerable, an extraordinary and vaguely preposterous conversation has taken shape. Variations on it have been advanced by everyone from former presidents chatting with Hollywood moguls on news cable TV to esteemed Sunday-morning newspaper columnists picking their way through the racial bric-à-brac of the presidential psyche. In a way, it’s the corollary of the birther discussion at the other end of the spectrum, which is to say that it’s a conversation we’ve never had about any other president.
There’s been a growing sense over the last month that Barack Obama is winning battles but losing the war—until this past week, when he lost the battle too. Governor Mitt Romney, repudiating an effort by the former chairman of a major online brokerage firm to underwrite a $10 million advertisement that raises anew questions about the president’s former minister, equated the tactic to the “character assassination” represented by questions about Romney’s experience with the private-equity company Bain Capital.
The existence of the Republican Party has been marked by five incarnations in its century and a half, peaking early with its first president and the country’s greatest, Abraham Lincoln. The second Republican age culminated at the outset of the last century with Theodore Roosevelt; the third age with Dwight Eisenhower; the fourth with Ronald Reagan—whose harbingers were Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon—and whose coda was George H. W. Bush. The fifth that ultimately would coalesce around the presidency of Bush’s son was inaugurated by Newton Leroy Gingrich of Georgia, and not even W. has better represented the party’s style and substance these past 20 years.
The solution of any geometric problem begins with an assumption, and the assumption in this week’s political geometry is that the Supreme Court will overturn the Affordable Care Act that first opponents, then the rest of us, have come to call Obamacare. This may or may not come to pass. Judicial history is rife with Supreme Court oral arguments that seem to go one way only for the decision to go another. The great irony of Obamacare, of course, is that its most controversial provision, and the thing about it that has rallied conservatives against it, was itself a conservative article of faith for the past two decades right up to the moment that Barack Obama embraced it; and the thing about it that has rallied conservatives against it is the notion—originally advanced as a response to Clintoncare by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and then championed until as recently as three years ago by Republicans, including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former speaker Newt Gingrich—that the government could and should compel individuals to take responsibility for buying their own health insurance. The right liked this idea precisely because it put the financial onus of health care on individuals rather than where President Bill Clinton believed it belonged: on the businesses that employ individuals.