What will the health care ruling be? How will it be spun? Still a mystery ...
The Supreme Court is about to toss a judicial bomb into the middle of the presidential campaign, and nobody knows what impact it will have.
The bomb, of course, is the court's ruling on President Obama's health care law, expected next month.
At first glance, the political implications might look simple. If the court upholds the law, Obama's biggest legislative achievement, the president wins; if the court declares the law unconstitutional, he loses. But as with many things in politics, it may not be that simple at all.
If the court upholds the law, Obama will hail the decision as proof that he was right all along. But that won't change the unpleasant truth (for Obama) that the law is widely unpopular. If Obama wins in the court, he'll have to spend precious campaign time defending a law that most of the electorate dislikes -- good news for his GOP rival, Mitt Romney.
What happens if the court strikes down the law entirely? At first glance, that would be a stinging defeat for the president. Romney and other Republicans already have their talking points drafted: They'll say Obama should have been working on the economy but wasted time passing a law that turned out to be unconstitutional. And "unconstitutional" isn't a compliment.
"For most voters, 'unconstitutional' is synonymous with 'bad,'" Republican pollster Bill McInturff told me. "They're not going to look at it in a narrow legal sense."
But there's a contrarian view, too: that a defeat in the court could turn into a political victory for Obama.
"It could be a great mobilizing event for liberals and Democrats," argues William A. Galston, a former aide to President Clinton. "A bitter loss mobilizes people in a way that success does not."
Democratic strategists have been working on their talking points, too, and here's what they suggest Obama would say in the event of defeat: A Supreme Court dominated by conservative Republican appointees has deprived Americans of protections they liked, such as the guarantee that people with preexisting health conditions could still get insurance -- and Romney's Republicans don't have anything to put in its place.
"It's a great argument to mobilize the base," Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said. "It would be great for turnout."
But there's a third, more complicated scenario: The court could uphold most of the law but strike down the "individual mandate," the federal requirement that everyone obtain health insurance or pay a fine.
Depending on what other provisions the court strikes down, the result could be chaos in policy land. If the court overturns the individual mandate but keeps the rule guaranteeing coverage to sick people, insurance companies will warn that their costs will go through the roof, and they might hike their rates to prove it. If the court overturns both the mandate and the insurance guarantee, the insurance companies will dodge that bullet, but Obama and Romney will be plunged into a furious debate over whether the truncated program that remains can be made workable.
No one thinks the current system is working, but the GOP hasn't agreed on an alternative to put in Obamacare's place.
And here's a wild card: Voters could resent any candidate who spends too much time talking about health care; that's not the issue that's at the top of their concerns.
"Voters want to hear the candidates tell them how they'd fix the economy," Republican pollster David Winston said. "They don't want to watch a rerun of the 2010 health care debate."
About the only part of the public reaction that's predictable is this: Many voters will interpret the Supreme Court's actions as political, not as the product of dispassionate legal judgments. Big majorities, as high as 67 percent, have told pollsters they think the court's decision will be based on politics, not on the law.
One side or the other will gain an advantage from this fight, but at this point, it's still (and this is frustrating for this pundit) impossible to say which one.
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