At least one article on this week’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (the “ACA”) claimed that it would help (or at least not hinder) Republican chances in the November presidential election if the law were struck down or significantly pared back. That view is questionable.
Both of the leading Republican candidates for president, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, have vowed to repeal the ACA if elected. If the Court effectively repeals it for them, they will have lost a compelling reason for voters to elect whichever of them secures the nomination in lieu of returning the incumbent to office. The default position for voters in all campaigns is, lacking a compelling reason otherwise, to reelect the devil they know.
And the ACA is the more or less sole distinguishing domestic issue between Republicans and Democrats. If the ACA is no more, and is incapable of resurrection given the current political landscape in Congress, then why risk electing some unknown and untested Mormon or Catholic, when you’ve already warmed to, or at least know, the Muslim you have now? (That was nothing more or less than an irreverent joke. So sue me.)
With the economy apparently mending, the compulsion to return the incumbent, always strong, will be even stronger. True, gas prices are apt to accelerate their rate of increase as the economy gets better. And true, the economy is teetering on the brink of a fiscal disaster (see Caroline Baum’s article for more), to replace the financial system disaster that preceded it. So if the ACA is overturned, thereby removing the most compelling reason for electing a Republican, much will depend on the timing of the fiscal chickens. If they make it home to roost by late summer or early autumn (as I have predicted and still believe will), the incumbent will look less attractive, and may still lose. But a refutation of the incumbent’s signature and vastly unpopular initiative would help, not hinder, his chances for reelection, no matter what the economy does. And I think Americans are finally coming around to the realization that the president has little power to create economic growth where none existed before. Some may even be grown-up enough to realize that, as powerful as a president is, he can’t directly determine the price of oil in international markets.
What a delicious irony if the Supreme Court’s conservative wing delivers a conservative victory to the Republicans that ultimately results in the Republicans suffering through four more years of Obama. Of course, Republicans are no more conservative than are Democrats. The only abiding principle, the only bedrock value, of either party is their belief that they should be the ones doing the governing and not the other guys. That the Republicans might lose because their signature issue is rendered moot by justices doing exactly as they were appointed by Republican Administrations to do is just too rich.
The ACA was a vast power grab by the federal government vis-a-vis the citizens it governs. It represents doubling down on a bet in order to fix a problem of its own creation. The federal government promised more to its citizens in health care benefits than it can possibly hope to deliver without drastic structural changes to its promise-delivery system. So it made more promises, in return for which it demanded wholesale participation in the sacrifices required to satisfy them. Its strategy was not unlike the Federal Reserve’s, when it dealt with the residential real estate collapse caused by too much cheap money by doubling down and providing even more money, even more cheaply. Both situations offer abiding proof of the premise that the centralization and federalization of problems large and small have a one-way, upward trajectory. The federal government must fancy itself akin to housing prices before the crash, that never declined, until they did. Given its gathering insolvency, I’d say the top for expansion in federal government power is just about in.