The Supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the ACA on Thursday, but in doing so dealt the Romney campaign a serious blow. He may not be able to recover. The survival of Obamacare was a shot below the waterline, and it will be difficult for him to stay afloat with all the water he’ll be taking on. John Roberts preserved the reputation of the court–whom many people have begun to see as just another battlefield for political infighting–but in doing so he saddled the Republican nominee with a huge additional burden.
If the court had struck down the law, Romney and his campaign could have breathed a sigh of relief at the bullet they’d dodged; as it stands, now he is in the uncomfortable position of having to actively run on substance against a program he championed and signed into law just 6 years ago–and advocated for as recently as 2009. Republicans seem to think this will help them in the general election, but they’re whistling past the graveyard. For the foreseeable future, this is the law of the land. I have mixed emotions about that, but will cover those in a future post. For now, suffice in to say that the Affordable Care Act isn’t going anywhere. Republicans would do well to let this one go for at least the next few years, because all they are going to accomplish by fighting this is demonstrate their utter inability to do anything about it.
Currently, there are 47 Republicans in the Senate, and 51 Democrats–plus two independents who caucus with them. That means there currently aren’t even enough votes to pass a repeal measure. Assuming they pick up 5 seats and reverse this–a hugely improbably outcome–they still don’t have the votes to override a Democratic filibuster, and if by some miracle they pull that off Obama can simply veto the measure. To override a presidential veto takes a two thirds majority. To pull that off, Republicans need to hold onto all 10 seats they have in play this year, plus pick up most of the 23 contested Democratic seats. The odds of that happening are astronomically small. Granted, this assumes Obama retains his office, but of course I already assume that.
In the meantime, 56% of the country wants the Republicans to drop it and move on, with a higher percentage of swing voters holding that view. The only people who were “energized” by this Supreme Court decision were anti-Obama already; this decision hasn’t won him a single voter he didn’t have before. At best, it’s reduced the losses from reduced turnout he was already facing from a party for whom he’s a lukewarm candidate at best.
If Obamacare had been struck down, Romney might have had a chance to shift focus to other issues, or to propose an alternative healthcare plan. This might have helped him avoid association with the worst enemy he has on this campaign: himself, prior to 2009. Instead, this gives the Obama campaign ample ammunition to keep flinging Romney’s own positions up against him. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Barack Obama come out praising Mitt Romney for his “courage and leadership” in passing the exact same bill in Massachusetts while he was governor there, in what would possibly qualify as the biggest, smacking-est, backhanded compliment of all time.
It hasn’t helped that Romney’s team appears to have been caught completely off guard by the court’s ruling, and hasn’t really managed to formulate a cohesive, powerful response even to this day. Demonstrating the kind of bush league political acumen we’ve come to expect from his campaign, Romney fired off a boilerplate opposition to the decision and the overall law itself, but has since been unable to present any clear alternative and has been reduced to impotent promises to “do everything in [his] power to repeal Obamacare” if elected. That’s a clumsy bit of weasel wording, because as empty campaign promises go, that’s a zinger. First of all, Romney’s power to repeal the law would be virtually nonexistent, even if elected. The president doesn’t just get to un-pass laws. It doesn’t work that way. Congress would need 13 more Republicans in the Senate than it currently has. And finally, even if he manages to get elected and gain 13 new Republican senators, He would wind up crippling his presidency. By the 2014 midterm elections, the provisions of the ACA will have fully kicked in, and the only one that doesn’t command a solid majority in favor is the individual mandate. By then, people will be used to it. They’ll also be used to no annual or lifetime caps, no restrictions on pre-existing conditions, and better health coverage. Taking all that away from voters will have serious repercussions, potentially making Romney a lame duck halfway into his first term.
Besides, all of that assumes he wants to repeal Obamacare in the first place–he doesn’t. Why would he? He fought for that plan, he helped create it. He argued it before the people of his state and the legislature, he sold it in speeches and TV ads. There is no element of Obamacare he is fundamentally at odds with, regardless of what he says to keep the Tea Party rubes in line. Given the relatively limited impact he could have as chief executive to repeal the law in the first place, I don’t see him squandering political capital to fight a Sisyphean battle that he’d have almost no chance of winning. As I said above, Obamacare is here to stay now. At most, Romney would try and push through some superficial modifications to the program, call it a major overhaul that fixed the “serious flaws”, and gamble on being able to sell that to the voters. If Fox News plays along–and I have every expectation they would–it would be a safe bet he could pull it off.
But that all assumes he can overcome the devastating blow the Supreme Court has handed him in the first place. To do that means reassuring a skittish Republican base that he’s a true conservative–and not a political Trojan Horse just waiting to pop open and release a horde of liberal ideas and positions the instant he’s sworn in. It means convincing them that he really is the man he’s been saying he is for the past two-and-a-half years of his life–and not the man he was for the other 63.
What could possibly go wrong?