If the mainstay of the debate surrounding the forthcoming American presidential elections centres on Obamacare, the President will not be staying in the White House for a second term.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n what seemed to add insult to injury the Democrats trounced the Republicans, 18-5, in the 75th annual Congressional Baseball game in Washington last night. Chants of ‘We won healthcare!’ from the Democratic staffers and supporters at Nationals Park echoed through the stadium, referencing the largely favorable Supreme Court ruling on the Obamacare law earlier that day. For a moment, the energy felt like the massive electoral victories of 2006 or 2008. While supporters of the law and President should indeed celebrate the Court’s ruling, they should also be cautious and consider some unintended political consequences that could arise:
- The win could be an energizing factor for the Republican base in November. Democrats will have to carefully balance how they frame the victory while on the campaign trail. The country is sharply divided over the ruling as shown in a recent Gallup poll and many independents could be pushed away if the law is a central talking point. Republicans can easily be critical of the law and demand a repeal. Democrats need to avoid making November an effective referendum on the law.
- Governor Romney will attempt to make the election a referendum on Obamacare. In his response to the ruling the presumptive Republican nominee said ‘What the court did not do on its last day in session, I will do on my first day if elected president of the United States. And that is I will act to repeal Obamacare.’ The Romney narrative is that ‘Obamacare’ is a tax hiking, deficit increasing, job killing, personally invasive law. This rhetoric doesn’t need to be true in order for it to be effective. If every Obama campaign stop is a retort to Romney’s claims and the defense of a law that the President expended substantial political capital to pass two years ago, it will eat up valuable time and resources that could be spent talking about other issues (job creation, counter-terrorism success, and Wall Street reform to name a few).
- Key Senate races have become a lot more interesting. While the House can pass a repeal now it will most certainly stop in the Senate. The Republicans will frame the Senate (and the Presidency) as operating against the will of the people (true or not) and claim that controlling the upper house as central to removing the law. With vulnerable open seats in ND, WI, and VA and Senators Tester (MT), McCaskill (MO), and Nelson (FL) on the chopping block there is a substantial risk of the body turning red. While the Republicans will not gain a supermajority in the Senate (enough to overcome a filibuster), forcing a potential Senate Democratic minority to resort to a procedural road block to defend the law will push tensions to an all time high and will be extremely unpopular politically. The worst-case scenario for supporters of the law is moderate Democrats voting for repeal out of political fear.
Democrats should indeed be happy with the Court’s ruling however one must ask the question whether a negative decision on Obamacare would have made things easier in November. Democrats in sensitive districts will need to defend the law while simultaneously downplaying their support for it. The President is unable to downplay his support for the law but will need to balance his response to Romney’s attacks with the discussion of policy successes in other realms. If the debate is focused around Obamacare, the President will lose.