Today, the Supreme Court justices will take a vote on the fate of President Obama’s healthcare law. We won’t know the outcome until June. But based on how the oral arguments went, the law’s chances of survival seem much slimmer than they did just one week ago.
The administration has been insisting all week that they have no “Plan B” to put in place if the law gets struck down - saying they remain confident that it is constitutional. But rest assured, over the next two months they will be scrambling to come up with both a policy fix and a political strategy to handle what now seems like a very real possibility that it will be overturned.
If the law is found unconstitutional, the Republican line of attack is already clear. It will be framed as both an example of executive overreach and utter incompetence. Just as the president was “in over his head” when it came to the financial crisis, Republicans will argue, he didn’t know what he was doing on healthcare either. As conservative columnist Peggy Noonan puts it in The Wall Street Journal, “The constitutional law professor from the University of Chicago didn’t notice the centerpiece of his agenda was not constitutional? How did that happen?”
For their part, many Democrats have been arguing that an overturn might actually help the president politically - since the whole issue would lose much of its urgency for the GOP base. This week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters, “There’s a significant school of thought that the administration is … in a better position for the election if it’s turned down.”
And Democratic strategist James Carville predicted on CNN that in the wake of an overturn, healthcare costs would skyrocket - and Republicans would then shoulder the blame for the problem. ”The Democrats are going to say, and it is completely justified, ‘We tried, we did something,’” Carville said. “The Republican Party will own the healthcare system for the foreseeable future.”
Still, that public shift in blame - if it happens - would likely be more of a long-term, rather than short-term effect. In the immediate aftermath, the Obama team will rely on a different line of defense, which can be summed up in two words: Mitt Romney.
As White House adviser David Plouffe put it last weekend on NBC’s Meet the Press, the likely Republican nominee is “the godfather of our healthcare plan.” It isn’t just Democrats making this case: Romney opponent Rick Santorum has been arguing throughout the primary fight that the Massachusetts law Romney put into effect as governor - which served as the model for Obamacare - makes Romney “uniquely disqualified” to run against the president on healthcare.
As we’ve already seen, Obama can employ Romney’s own words to defend key elements of Obamacare. Here’s Romney in 2007, talking about the need for an individual mandate (albeit at the state level):
“When [individuals who have chosen not to purchase insurance] show up at the hospital, they get care, they get free care, paid for by you and me. If that’s not a form of socialism, I don’t know what is. So my plan did something quite different. It said, you know what, if people can afford to buy insurance, if they can afford to buy insurance, or if they can pay their own way, then they either buy that insurance or pay their own way, but they no longer look to government to hand out free care. And that, in my opinion, is ultimate conservatism…. [W]e rely on private market dynamics to get people in our state insured and for individuals to finally take responsibility for some portion of their health care rather than expecting government to give them a free ride.”
Romney has said repeatedly that he never believed the Massachusetts model should be employed at the federal level. So far, it’s been a difficult distinction for him to draw.
But if the Supreme Court strikes down Obamacare, Romney will finally be handed one sharp, unequivocal contrast between his law and Obama’s: One was constitutional, while the other was not.
In fact, we can even conceive of Romney using his healthcare experience to then argue that he would be the ideal candidate to go in and clean up the policy mess that the Supreme Court decision may leave in its wake. That, of course, would take a certain amount of political deftness. We’ll see if Romney can rise to the occasion.
— Liz Marlantes