After a four month “death watch” in the mainstream media for President Obama’s health reforms (following an ineffectual defense in March’s Supreme Court hearings), instant analysts were quick to characterize last week’s Supreme court decision as a ringing vindication of the Affordable Care Act and a big political victory for a struggling President Obama.
However, on closer reading, the instant analysts were wrong. The Roberts Court actually punched a huge hole in the law, potentially reducing its historic coverage expansion by as much as a third. In addition, the Court’s ruling will set off serious political conflict in southern and mid-western states that will ripple through those states’ health care markets, and fracture hospitals’ and health plans’ support for health reform.
Unlike the Act itself, which was almost unreadable, the Court’s opinions were written in English and will reward readers with fresh understanding of this complex law. They reveal two incommensurable philosophical positions eloquently argued and improbably bridged. There were two big surprises: Justice Robert’s apparent last minute support of the Court’s liberal wing in preserving the mandate and the remarkable decision to render the Medicaid coverage expansion optional! (Justice Kennedy, the presumed swing vote, actually supported killing the entire law).
Like the hero in an old-time movie, Chief Justice John Roberts metaphorically untied Obamacare from the railroad tracks and, with four of his colleagues, pulled it away from the onrushing destructive force of his right-wing colleagues in the nick of time. In doing so he also saved President Obama from political disaster.
Alas, just like in the movies, the villains will soon be back.
While the next five months will determine whether the Court ruling upholding health reform was a victory or just a reprieve, the president has been plucked from the perils of a politically ruinous headline: “Signature achievement of constitutional lawyer president declared unconstitutional.”
In doing so, the Court showed why Americans hate the other guy’s lawyer and love theirs. Roberts embraced his inner reactionary by ruling that the individual mandate did not meet the requirements of the Commerce Clause — even though virtually all respected conservative jurists believe it does, and the conservative Heritage Foundation clearly believed it did when proposing the idea under a Republican president.
However, the Court avoided what would look like a political decision overturning the entire law by ruling that the penalty for not buying health insurance was a constitutionally permitted tax. Which made the law constitutional. Game. Set. Match. (Well, unless you were a poor person counting on an expansion of Medicaid. But if you’re poor, you should be used to losing.)
Don’t you love clever lawyers? At least when they’re on your side?