The Supreme Court is due to rule on the constitutionality of the individual mandate in Obamacare before the end of the month. If the mandate stands, the rest of the law will, too. If it falls, however, there will also be the question of how much of the rest of the law must go with it — and, of course, what to do next.
Along the way, the issue will have an impact on the re-election chances of the man for whom the law was nicknamed. But what kind of impact, and how much?
Up to a point, I think the results have been baked into existing opinion about President Obama and Mitt Romney. The law’s supporters are largely on Obama’s side, and most of its critics are on Romney’s side. There may be some crossover voting for Obama by independents who dislike the law, and vice versa, but if so they’ll be making their decisions for reasons beyond Obamacare — which means the court’s ruling is unlikely to sway them. There may be some change in enthusiasm, but I wouldn’t expect it to be very great. And, given the many possible outcomes, it’s best to wait until we have a ruling to hash out how it might affect voters’ moods.
I said only “up to a point,” however, because I think there’s potential for significant movement depending on how the candidates and their campaigns react to the news.
I think it would be foolish (not to mention churlish) for the Obama campaign to try to blame and paint the Supreme Court as yet another external force arrayed against it. First, rulings issued by the court as recently as yesterday proved that there is no hard ideological schism among the justices. The three 5-4 rulings unveiled Monday included majorities of 1) Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Elena Kagan and Anthony Kennedy; 2) Kennedy, Thomas, Samuel Alito, John Roberts and Stephen Breyer; and 3) Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas. In a fourth case that broke 8-1, only Sotomayor dissented. All nine justices found themselves in a majority at least once in these four cases, while only Kennedy and Thomas were in the majority all four times. That’s hardly the picture of a rigidly divided bench.
Second, public opinion falls sharply on the side of believing the mandate is unconstitutional. In a poll taken in February, a month before the court heard oral arguments in the Obamacare case, Gallup found 72 percent of all respondents thought the mandate violated the Constitution, including majorities of both Democrats (56 percent) and those who think the law is “a good thing” (54 percent). More recently, a CBS News/New York Times poll found two-thirds of respondents wanted the court to throw out at least the mandate, including a plurality of Democrats (48 percent).
So, trying to curry favor with voters by castigating the court would be a strategy that ignores public sentiment — not to mention striking yet another blow to Obama’s self-proclaimed desire to be a unifying figure.
As for Romney, he should expect a great deal of media attention to focus on congressional Republicans’ response. No prizes for guessing whether the press will portray the House GOP or Senate Democrats as the main obstacle to a legislative solution should all or part of the law be overturned.
Rather than trying to herd congressional cats as a mere candidate, however, Romney would be well-advised to keep his focus on what he can control — namely, what he would do to remedy the situation if voters give him that opportunity.
This is one way in which his choice of a running mate could materially affect his election prospects, and it’s one of the reasons I think Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal should be at the top of his short list. Before being elected governor, Jindal served as both the head of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals — with responsibility for the state’s Medicaid program — and, federally, as a top adviser to the secretary for Health and Human Services. If any potential running mate has the experience and knowledge to help a President Romney devise a sensible solution for health policy, it’s Jindal. (He’d also be a tremendous asset to the campaign when it comes to energy policy and could speak first-hand about how the Obama administration botched the response to the BP oil spill.)
Expect any post-ruling bounce for Obama or Romney to be short-lived until voters have a chance to assess what each man would do going forward. Then, the ruling could have a significant effect on the election.
– By Kyle Wingfield