No, This Was Not The Better Outcome For Mitt

by Alec MacGillis | June 29, 2012

During the run-up to the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act, I tried to avoid making predictions about how various outcomes would play politically—such conjectures too often skirted entirely the matter of the millions of people who had so much at stake in the ruling. But now that the ruling has been delivered, I’m going to weigh in briefly on this score, to rebut a notion that has quickly started making the rounds: that the upholding of Barack Obama’s law is actually better for Mitt Romney than if the law had been struck down. I get the basic premise, which was laid out as well as possible by my colleague Noam Scheiber: the ruling energizes the Republican base, and it spares Romney the need to come up with proposals to replace an annulled health care law, which would have been awkward given that the health care approach he pioneered in 2006 resembled Obama’s.

But I don’t buy it. Judging this the better outcome for Romney means seriously understating just how brutal the law’s rejection would have been for Obama. It would have allowed Romney to argue—to crow to the skies, surely—that Obama’s entire first term had been a giant zero: not only had he been unable to bring the economy back to full strength, but the issue he chose to focus on for the first two years of his term, when the economy was at its worst, had been proven a fool’s errand. It would, as Jon Chait put it before the ruling, have cast a “demoralizing stench of failure that would have come from having his largest achievement go to waste.”

And that’s not all. Romney has been in a bind on health care all campaign, given that he signed into the law the model for Obamacare. But a ruling against the law would have allowed Romney to lambast it on the court’s terms—as an unconstitutional overreach. The court’s negative imprimatur would be all that he would need to invoke to make the case against the law. Whereas, as Nate Cohn points out, the court’s upholding of the law will probably now enhance the law’s legitimacy in the eyes of some voters. And, crucially, it will now fall to Romney himself to lead the argument against Obamacare, and to the extent that he takes up this charge, it will bring into focus, as never before, just how compromised he is on this front. Yes, there would have been talk of what to do about health care had the law been thrown out, and this, too, would have brought attention to Romney’s record on the issue, and to just how bare the cupboard of reforms is that he and other Republicans are now offering as a “replacement” for the law. But I’m not sure the bareness of that cupboard would necessarily have been so damaging to the Republicans—the party’s lack of interest in doing anything to expand health coverage is hardly a new thing; in fact, it arguably helps define the modern GOP. Odds are, Romney and the Republicans would have simply avoided the subject as best they could, beyond ridiculing Obama for the law’s rejection. But if Romney now wants to rally voters against Obama, as the “this is good for Mitt” camp says he will be able to do, he will have to talk about the subject that is so very awkward for him.

And when he does so, when he makes the case for doing away with Obamacare, and Obama in turn makes the case for keeping it ("forward, not back"), Romney will be doing, as John Dickerson notes, exactly what he didn’t want to do this election: he will be turning it into a choice between two approaches, rather than a referendum on the incumbent who couldn’t even make sure his biggest achievement passed constitutional muster. No, this is not good for Mitt.

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