Obamacare upheld: big win for Dems, fresh rallying cry for Republicans

by Todd J. Gillman

Source: The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON –President Barack Obama staked much of his first term on a sweeping health care overhaul, and to the dismay of his critics, the Supreme Court handed him a huge vindication. The shockwaves are only beginning.

Most of the law, including the “individual mandate” — the widely reviled centerpiece of the law – survived. Requiring most Americans to buy insurance came to represent everything critics dislike about Obama, distilling fears about a growing and overly intrusive federal government.

Hundreds of tea party activists gathered on the steps of the high court, crestfallen at news that Chief Justice John Roberts – appointed by President George W. Bush with then-Sen. Obama voting against his confirmation — sided with the president. His vote, combined with those of the court’s four most liberal justices, affirmed the government’s authority to impose a tax on anyone who refused to comply with the mandate.

On the eve of the ruling, House Speaker John Boehner cautioned the GOP rank-and-file not to “spike the ball.” Gloating, he feared, would be unseemly and could backfire politically. But as the body politic began to digest Thursday’s ruling, one thing became clear: that issue was moot.

Victory belonged to Democrats and the White House. For Republicans, the defeat at best will serve as a rallying cry to defeat Obama in November.

“The Supreme Court made clear today that the American people will be the ultimate judge of ObamaCare,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who heads the GOP’s Senate campaign effort, said after the ruling, conceding he was disappointed. “As Republicans, we will redouble our efforts to repeal this job-killing law.”

On the steps of the court before the justices handed down the ruling, foes of the health care reform law were in a giddy mood. That changed fast.

For two years, “Obamacare” has been a punching bag, punch line and epithet for Republicans. Thursday’s ruling will only encourage Republicans to hunker down and redouble efforts to fulfill their rallying cry to “repeal and replace.”

The political crosscurrents have been intense. Americans don’t much care for the status quo when it comes to health care. Nor do they care much for the package the Supreme Court put under the microscope this year – at least, taken as a whole.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted last week found that just four in 10 Americans view the current health system favorably. But other than Democrats, the plan upheld Thursday wasn’t the fix most Americans say they wanted.

But the public’s views are complex. Most elements of the law enjoy broad support – more so than the Republican calls to repeal the law, on which the public is evenly split. The individual mandate –requiring people to buy insurance or pay a fine – has remained unpopular. But the public embraces rules barring insurers from turning away customers because of pre-existing conditions, and requiring them to let children up to age 26 get coverage under a parent’s policy.

When it comes to public opinion, none of this has played out in a vacuum.

Republicans have talked down the law since long before Obama signed it. And it’s important to keep in mind that many elements haven’t yet kicked in.

Thursday’s ruling itself will sway perceptions on the legitimacy and wisdom of the law.

Republican presidential standard-bearer Mitt Romney, among others, has bludgeoned Obama for putting the health care reform as a higher priority than rescuing the U.S. economy – an especially bad bet if the court scrapped the law.

At a rally Wednesday in Sterling, Va., where his first mention of “Obamacare” drew boos, Romney vowed to eradicate any part of the law the court leaves in place. “I’m going to get rid of the cloud of Obamacare and return us to personal responsibility and states’ rights as it relates to health care,” he said.

That has been common trope for Republicans.

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound, a physician who is a leading voice on health care for conservatives in the House, criticized Obama for devoting the first two years of his term to health care, when he should have “focused like a laser beam on the economy and jobs…. That’s what people wanted to see.”

John Goodman, president of the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative group, said Congress will have to continue to wrestle with rising health care costs.

“We’re on a path that’s unsustainable,” said Goodman, who helped craft Sen. John McCain’s health care policies in the 2008 presidential campaign. “Our deficit problem is a health care problem, and the deficits will force us to deal with this.”

In his view, “Obamacare is so flawed that even Democrats are going to want to change it before 2014,” when many provisions kick in.

In last week’s Texas Senate debate, tea party-backed GOP candidate Ted Cruz – the state’s former appellate lawyer and a veteran advocate at the Supreme Court – predicted “an epic political fight” after the Supreme Court ruled. He vowed to “repeal ever syllable of every word of Obamacare.” His rival in the July 31 runoff, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, also promised to fight for full repeal.

Across the country, candidates in both parties, and the parties themselves, have used the fight to drum up donations and support.

In Florida, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity has been running an ad this week targeting Sen. Bill Nelson for, among other things, providing “the deciding vote for Barack Obama’s trillion dollar health care law” – echoing attacks by GOP challenger Rep. Connie Mack.

The day of reckoning that finally arrived on Thursday has loomed over politicians nationwide for months. In Indiana last week, GOP Senate nominee Richard Mourdock’s became an Internet sensation when his aides inadvertently posted on YouTube four different versions of his “reaction” to various possible rulings from the Supreme Court; it was a rare, viral window into the strategizing going on in campaign war rooms, Congressional offices, the White House and in myriad lobbying shops across Washington.

Some analysts don’t see the health care fight dominating the November elections, no matter how momentous the ruling.

One top independent handicapper, Charlie Cook, predicted that by the fall, “we’re not going to be talking about well, the Supreme Court decision was pivotal.” Other issues have come and gone, and the economy remains the issue weighing most heavily on voters.

“Is there any other issue that’s been so thoroughly litigated in the court of public opinion than health care reform? I don’t think whatever side you’re on [that] you’re likely to switch. It’s sort of factored into the stock price for and against President Obama.”

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