With the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act only days away, I have tried to play out all the potential ways the Court could rule and what they would mean on a purely political level this election. As best as I can tell, any Court decision is likely to be either a political wash for Democrats or a net loser. It is hard to make a case that any of the three most likely outcomes would really help Democrats or Obama this November.
Court upholds the whole law – If the Court narrowly upholds the whole law in a 5-4 decision, the good news for Democrats is that they get a headline to the effect of: “Obama wins.” Democrats could hail it as a validation of their work and proof their law is constitutional.
That said, on a political level it is hard to see even this end result as a net gain for their election prospects. Even having the Court rule in Democrats’ favor still means that the case only guaranteed that the unpopular law and one of its most unpopular provisions dominated the news cycle for a large chuck of time in the lead-up to the election. Democrats are still left in basically the same place they are now, defending a law that is not popular and whose benefits really haven’t kicked in yet.
While I don’t see how the Court deciding to leave the law in place would rally the Democratic base, there is a very good chance it could rally the Republican base. 2010 showed that Obamacare didn’t rally Democrats, but the desire to repeal it was able to energize Republicans. If the court upholds the law, Republicans’ only chance of getting rid of it will be to elect Mitt Romney, so the Romney campaign should be able to use it to build enthusiasm for his campaign.
Court strikes down the whole law – The Court striking down the whole law would be devastating for President Obama and declared a huge loss for him by the media. Republicans would have bragging rights and “proof” that Obama overreached.
It could have some political upsides for Democrats, but probably not enough to make up for the big downsides. The whole law being repealed could make some Republicans complacent and take away a reason for rallying around Romney. Obama could also rally his base against an out-of-control and politicized Court. It is often easier to rally people against an enemy than for something.
The big problem with this strategy, though, is that it might not play outside the base. The fact is polling shows most Americans think the law is unconstitutional. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll from two months ago found 51 percent thought the Court should rule against the law, and just 26 percent thought they should find it constitutional. Similarly, a Quinnipiac poll from April found, by a margin of 49 percent to 38 percent, Americans want the Court to rule against the law.
Another problem is that a bad ruling could just as easily dishearten the Democrats’ base instead of rallying it. It could create a real sense of futility. It would mean Obama wasted much of his first term with nothing to show for it, and it would be highly unlikely that Obama would be able to pass a new health care law in his second term.
Democrats could try to put Republicans in an awkward position because the GOP doesn’t have a replacement plan and the American people say they want one, but I think it would have limited benefit. After all, the Paul Ryan “budget plan” was nothing more than completely vague platitudes, but that didn’t stop the media from pretending it was a real plan. Regular voters simply don’t pay attention to small policy details.
Court striking down just the individual mandate, or the mandate and a few provisions – The Court finding only a part of the law unconstitutional will still be seen as a loss and rebuke for Obama. That is what the headlines and attack ads will read, but only the mandate being struck down should not be as devastating for Obama. Obama could still campaign on the remaining good parts while still having the option to try to rally his base against an out-of-control Court.
Even a limited ruling against the law would be a validation for Republicans and “proof” that Obama overreached. The validation of the Republican argument against the health care law might make the law even less popular and get the GOP base enthusiastic to finish the entire job of repealing it by electing Romney.
It could, though, carry a potential risk for Republicans by acting as a wedge between swing voters and the base. It is possible that with the most unpopular provision gone, many swing voters will consider the law fixed and be turned off by the Republicans continuing to push to get rid of all the remaining popular items. A Washington Post-ABC news poll from April found that just 38 percent want the Court to throw out the whole law, with a majority wanting the Court to keep the whole law, or just the law without the mandate.
Looking at the possible political implications of the three most likely rulings, it hard to see anything that would be clearly great for Democrats’ political prospects this year. At best, it could be wash with the positives and negatives balancing out, and at worse it could be a serious setback. Regardless how the Court rules, this whole experience is unlikely to turn into a political plus for Democrats.