The Long and Short of Obamacare

Obamacare might yet survive the scrutiny of the Supreme Court, but the consensus of informed opinion seems to be that the oral arguments on its behalf have not gone well. By the end of Wednesday’s session arch-liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was openly musing about what portions of the law the court might “salvage,” arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia retorted that forcing his clerks to rummage through the law’s 2,700 pages in search of something worth salvaging would be a violation of the constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and the pundits had moved on to talking about the political ramifications of it all.

One view, put forth by various commentators, holds that Obama finds himself in a “lose-lose” situation. The argument is that if the law is struck down Obama will be blamed for spending two years of congressional time and most of his political capital on a bill that proved unconstitutional, and if the law is upheld he’s stuck with a very unpopular policy and a newly re-energized opposition. Another view, put forth by former Clinton advisor and current CNN spinner James Carville, holds that a victory in the case would vindicate Obama but that a defeat “will be the best thing to ever happen to the Democratic Party…” He argues that health care costs are going to continue rise, and that Democrats will be able to blame their opposition if the law isn’t in effect.

The view here is that both arguments have some validity. In the short term Obama is likely to suffer politically regardless of how the court rules, while in the long term whichever side loses the case will ultimately reap a political benefit.

Obamacare’s popularity is such that Obama only mentions it “on occasion,” and not on such occasions as the anniversary of its passage, and it cannot help the president’s popularity to have the bill once again in the headlines. There’s already been a controversy over the law forcing the Catholic Church and other religious institutions to act against their beliefs, and a Congressional Budget Office report saying that the law is far more expensive than promised, so if the court rules that the law is also unconstitutional it will be very difficult for the media cheerleaders to find some good news to cheer about. If the law is upheld, on the other hand, it will serve as a timely reminder of the bill’s existence to the millions of Americans who desire its repeal.

Over time, though, whichever sides loses the court case should be able to gain an advantage.

Carville is quite right that health care costs will rise if the law is struck down, of course, and all the other imperfections of the pre-Obamacare system will also be back in place. There will be no way to positively disprove the claims that have been made for Obamacare, meanwhile, and those claims will grow increasingly extravagant. Within a few years a mythology will become commonplace that Obamacare would have given everyone futuristic medical for free, all dispensed by kindly doctors and comely nurses, and that grandma would still be alive and kicking at age 150 if not for the darned Republicans.

If the courts and the electorate allow the law to go into effect, on the other hand, health care costs will continue to rise and there will be other problems. At worst all of the predictions ventured by the Republicans will continue to come to true, with national bankruptcy at the end, and at the very best it will not be the perfection the Democrats have promised. Nostalgia for the good ol’ days will inevitably result, with all the imperfections of the past forgotten, all the problems of the present very much in mind, and no doubt about who’s to blame for the current system.

The only question, then, is whether the short term stretches into next November.

— Bud Norman


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