There’s no escaping the political implications of the court’s long-awaited decision on health care. Even Mitt Romney seems to agree. Two days before the court’s ruling, he told supporters: “As you know, the Supreme Court is going to be dealing with whether or not Obamacare is constitutional. If it is not — if Obamacare is not deemed constitutional — then the first three and a half years of this president’s term would have been wasted on something that has not helped the American people.”
Surely, Mitt, if that statement is true, then the converse is true: The fact that the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act means that Barack Obama, in fact, spent the first three and a half years of his presidency on something that was not a waste of time — that, in fact, has helped the American people tremendously.
Maybe Mitt should have talked to a certain former Republican governor of Massachusetts before making such a public fool of himself. After all, the individual mandate was first put forward in 1989 by the conservative Heritage Foundation as a cost-cutting measure and the only fiscally responsible way to achieve universal health care. In 1993, it was the core of the Republican Party’s alternative to President Clinton’s health-reform legislation and supported by 18 Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Bob Dole. And, of course, it was enthusiastically embraced and made the law of Massachusetts by Gov. Mitt Romney.
It was only after President Obama and other Democrats, in an effort to win Republican votes, adopted the individual mandate that Republicans suddenly turned against it — under the sound governing principle “If Obama’s for it, I must be against it.” They then made the individual mandate the heart of their legal case against the Affordable Care Act: arguing, in effect, against the legality of their own idea. Which turned out to be a fatal mistake. The court disagreed, finding that requiring people to buy health insurance might be questionable, but fining or otherwise punishing them for not doing so was clearly within the powers of Congress.
The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act is a huge policy and political victory for President Obama. It’s also a big win for the American people, who are already benefiting from many key provisions of the act. And it’ll make it harder for the president’s enemies to carry through with their threats to derail or repeal universal health care. It should have been unanimous.
But Thursday’s historic ruling is also a big victory for the Supreme Court itself, whose reputation under Chief Justice John Roberts has been suffering lately. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll earlier this month, only 44 percent of Americans approve of the job the court is doing, down from 66 percent in the late ’80s — and three-quarters say the justices are swayed in reaching decisions by their own personal or political agenda. That’s far from the reputation of independence and impartiality we expect for the nation’s highest court.
And no wonder. Beginning with Bush v. Gore, we have never seen a more arrogant and power-hungry court. In that decision, five justices ruled that the state of Florida did not have the right to count its own votes and that we Americans did not have the right to elect our own president. They, the conservative majority on the court, would make that decision for us. That was followed by Citizens United, where the all-powerful court, again by a narrow 5-4 conservative majority, wiped out decades of campaign finance reform law and opened the door to unlimited corporate and personal campaign contributions — all based on the absurd assertion that money in politics never corrupts politicians.
Until its decision on health care, the Roberts court was well on its way to being written off as the most predictable, political, proactive, partisan Supreme Court in history. But Roberts himself has begun to turn things around by writing the majority opinion on health care. The court is still badly split, but now there is hope that saner voices might prevail.
John Roberts to the rescue. He may have destroyed Mitt Romney. But he saved the court.
Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show.