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Health Care Reform Reshuffles The Race: The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For June 29, 2012

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Your Speculatroners knew that we'd be leading off our wrap-up of this week in the 2012 campaign with a discussion of the Supreme Court's ruling on health care reform, an analysis of the fallout from it and the way it will reshape the race. Of course, like just about everyone else, we were all but primed to expect the Roberts Court to strike down, at the very least, the individual mandate, if not the law in its entirety. Obviously, that didn't happen. But the decision that was rendered, nevertheless, alters the landscape in significant ways -- ways that are perhaps more interesting than had the law been sent to the dustbin.

Obviously, the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision more or less upholds the status quo. There are some interesting wrinkles to come in the way this tax on "free riders" will be implemented, and in the states' ongoing bargaining over Medicare. But, on balance, those Americans who stood to benefit from the protections of the law remain on the path to those benefits.

And the maintenance of the status quo will continue to present the same challenges for Team Obama Re-Elect. It's getting a little repetitive to keep pointing this out, but we'll mention it again: polls on the entirety of "Obamacare" tend to run against President Barack Obama. At the same time, polls on the component parts of the bill tend to be broadly favored by the public. If it seems like a strange disconnect, let's remember that the Affordable Care Act's greatest problem is that too few people know what it does. This is a phenomenon that was well-captured by The New Republic's Alec MacGillis, who traveled to a free clinic in Tennessee and met many people who did not even know that there was a law out there from which they stood to benefit.

Of course, if you listen to Mark Halperin -- which you should stop doing! -- you might be convinced that the worst thing that could have happened to Obama is for the Supreme Court to leave his law in place. This is, to our estimation, a hot load of bovine alimentary leavings. There's no benefit, whatsoever, to having your signature legislative victory incinerated by the Supreme Court. This is just the Beltway media indulging themselves in the game of counter-intuition -- a classic trope of political pundits who are always playing that game of "clever-clever" one-upsmanship that ends up pointlessly mystifying the political process. As Jeffrey Toobin remarked: "In...politics and the rest of life, it’s always better to win than lose. Winners win, and losers lose." Does Obama have a challenging path to re-election? Absolutely. But it's much harder withour the Affordable Care Act.

And the easiest way of explicating that fact is to remember what might have been if the SCOTUS had thrown out the law. That would have placed both Obama and Romney on the hook for answering the question, "So what are you going to do now?" Obama doesn't need to answer that anymore. He can spend the rest of the campaign making up for "Obamacare's" polling deficits. From his standpoint, it's a luxury. Romney, on the other hand, is still on the hook.

This is not to say that Romney doesn't extract some advantage from the Supreme Court ruling. If you're a voter who hates the Affordable Care Act but was waffling on whether to turn out for Mitt, given his long history of deviating from the conservative norm, you've got no choice now but to support Romney with full throat or open heart. It's the only scenario that gets the Affordable Care Act repealed.

And while the Supreme Court wrecked the chances of tossing Obamacare by the boards, there was still a reward that the GOP could extract from the wreckage -- it can now hammer down on the "mandate-is-actually-a-tax" issue, and contend that Obama's health care reform breaks a 2008 campaign promise to not raise taxes on the middle class. This is a message that Romney has already started to send. But it's not what he would have preferred -- in the days leading up to the court's decision, Romney clearly wanted to advance the idea that Obama had spent three years of his term working on something that was plainly unconstitutional.

Still, the simple fact of the matter is that Romney now faces the larger challenge. He's promised to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act. If he's elected, he'll obviously have the assistance of his GOP congressional colleagues who, by then, may have majorities (but, critically, not super-majorities) in the House and Senate. But for the time being, he is "repeal and replace's" only hope. And now, he'll have to map out a plan for both sides of that equation. (Assuming, that is, that reporters will hold Romney responsible for the replacement.) Those are the sorts of policy specifics that Romney has long labored to keep out of sight, for the obvious reason that once he exposes them, Team Obama Reelect can go on the attack.

We think that the decision has thus opened up a new and interesting faultline in the campaign to come. But as always, we're cognizant of dissenting views on the matter, and in this case, Jonathan Bernstein has some compelling reminders:

And yet . . . this election will not be fought over health care. Oh, it’s an issue, as it always is, but with 8 percent unemployment, it’s not going to be what swing voters are hearing about. And don’t forget — those swing voters weren’t the ones keeping a tab open on SCOTUSblog this morning; they may see a headline, but they aren’t paying much attention to any of this even when it’s dominating the news. And by next week, and then August, and then October, the Affordable Care Act isn’t going to be dominating the news anymore, and most swing voters will barely be aware that there is a health-care reform law.

Or, you’ll read that this decision will invigorate liberal activists because they won or conservative activists because they lost. Ignore that. Could it conceivably be true? I suppose, but no one knows, and, more to the point, if there’s one thing that political parties are incredibly good at, it’s getting their activists excited when a close election is coming. So any effect here is going to be marginal at best.

True: the economy is still where all the action is, and Obama can ill afford a slip in the direction of the recession that, ironically, spurred him to the White House in the first place. Still, all it takes for health care reform to become an interesting part of the campaign is for enough reporters to ask Romney a simple question: "What will you put in Obamacare's place?"

WE'VE SAID IT BEFORE, BUT IT BEARS REPEATING: It remains amazing that we've come to this point. Mitt Romney created "CommonwealthCare" in Massachusetts. At the time, it was a singular bit of innovative governance, with all the trimmings that the GOP normally like to brag about: they'd implemented a plan that came straight from one of their top think-tanks, they got it passed with bipartisan support, and they co-opted an important Democratic party issue -- universal health care. Romney's reward? He ascended to the presidential contender level of politics. Health care reform brought Romney to that dance.

And four years later, Romney's dancing partner has been stranded at the ball, with Romney pretending he'd never met her. We've said it before: Romney may be known as a flip-flopper, but the biggest story in his political career is the way the conservative world flopped on him.

Regardless of what you think of Romney, or his health care innovation, we think that if you endeavor to walk a mile in his shoes -- the shoes that have been worn down from having to flee his biggest accomplishment -- you'd probably get a despairing feeling down in your guts. It's sort of remarkable that in an age where reporters can get all kinds of confidants and colleagues to open up anonymously about things, we still don't know the story of what it was like for Romney to have to bail on "RomneyCare." If there's a tale there, it's being guarded closely.

Perhaps one day, we'll hear more about this, maybe in some chapter of a David Maraniss biography to come. To our mind, it's a pretty interesting example of the power of tribal politics to obliterate convictions and accomplishments, and how we are -- as a nation -- the lesser for it.

THE POPULARITY OF POPULISM:

Jonathan Martin's big think piece this week, titled "Democrats go AWOL in class war," makes the case that Democrats have been pretty slow to embrace economic populism on the campaign trail. "These days," he writes, "it’s possible to count on one hand the number of unapologetic populists in the U.S. Senate and, besides Elizabeth Warren, there are few more on the horizon."

Martin continues:

For the fighting left, it is a frustrating puzzle. If ever there was a moment for a good, old-fashioned class war, at first blush it seems now should be the time. Yet even after the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, there are few politicians preaching, or practicing, the old-time religion. The Occupy Wall Street movement, leaderless and without clear aims, is petering out as quickly as it sprang up and seems destined to have scant impact on the politics of 2012.

Martin identified a number of factors that seem to be impeding the Democrats from embracing the possibilities of class warfare: the ongoing anemia of the labor movement, the need for tall dollars in the Super PAC age, Obama's own tendency to favor elites, and the simple fact that populism is just not as popular among Democrats as it once was.

The Obama administration has never really taken to broad class war arguments, and their hesitancy to get in the thick of a populist argument manifests itself in myriad ways. Obama's not exactly pally with the Occupy Wall Street crowd. We have what's supposed to be a sweeping piece of financial regulatory reform in the Dodd-Frank bill that's actually fairly flawed and, in many ways, toothless. Obama's still questing for that Wall Street boodle, and the reactions of some of his Democratic colleagues to his attacks on Romney's record at Bain have been a reminder that many prominent Democrats are dependent on financial sector lucre.

And anyone who's seen that video of Elizabeth Warren tearing apart Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has probably wondered: "Aren't these two both important Obama appointees? If so, whose side is Obama on?" (SPOILER ALERT: It's Geithner's.)

Still, it's fair to say the Obama campaign is nevertheless steeped in populism. In order to flip the campaign script from a "referendum election" to a "choice election," Team Obama Re-Elect has to keep warning against Romney as a return to Bush-era economic policies and the devastation they caused. And as Talking Points Memo's Benjy Sarlin was quick to point out in response to Martin's piece, Vice President Joe Biden has been out on the hustings, playing the role of the Obama team's class-war colonel.

Can the circle be squared? Sure, as long as you keep in mind that populist rhetoric is not the same as populist policy. You can probably count on Obama linking Romney to Bush, and his surrogates making hay with his Bain Capital career, his woeful jobs record, and the way his titanic wealth distances himself from ordinary people until the night before election day. And depending on what Romney offers in terms of his own policies, there could be more class war rhetoric to come.

But will the President outline a plan to do something about income inequality, the ongoing foreclosure crisis, or holding 2008's Wall Street scofflaws to account? We think you know the answer to that question. But the election year is still quite young!

BAD NEWS BEARS: You know, GOP governors, they have careers they need to consider, too. And there's many of them that would prefer to remind their constituents that they were the one in the driver's seat when those flickers of recovery finally started to shine in their state. The problem is, Mitt Romney's not letting them do that. As Greg Sargent reports:

A few weeks ago, Terry Branstad, the Republican governor of Iowa, went public with his complaints about the Romney campaign’s tendency to hype the bad economic news in his state. Branstad questioned the Romney camp’s release of a web video highlighting the plight of the unemployed in Iowa — where the unemployment rate of 5.1 percent is significantly lower than the national average.

“My state is seeing significant growth,” Branstad said. “We are doing very well.”

The Romney camp, by contrast, were running attack ads that presented Iowans as being "concerned about their future in the Obama economy," and heavily touting this woeful refrain: “Nearly One In Five Iowans Experienced Economic Insecurity In 2010, A 26-Year High." In Florida, there were tales of a similar tension, in which it was reported that the Romney campaign had asked Florida Governor Rick Scott to refrain from talking up his state's economic improvements.

Our question: isn't Romney missing a better weapon, here? Branstad and Scott are Republican governors, like Romney. They both want to brag on their states' recoveries. Wouldn't the smart thing for Romney to do is tell voters that he's the guy to bring those economic gains to their state?

VEEPSTAKES: Whose stock is rising in the race to be Mitt Romney’s running mate? Tim Pawlenty! Wait, seriously, The Hill’s Christian Heinze? Apparently so. And the big reason why is that Obama’s Bain attacks have paid dividends in the swing states, and so Romney might want someone a little less associated with green eyeshades and a little more relatable to people who like the words “downscale” and, for some reason, “meatpacking”:

During his presidential campaign, Tim Pawlenty was fond of regaling voters with stories of growing up in the downscale meatpacking areas near St. Paul, Minn.
In one exemplary interview with Politics Daily last year, he rather dramatically underscored his blue-collar roots by invoking phrases like “fingernails dirty,” “grit and stuff of real life,” “truck driver,” “lunch-bucket,” “Gordie Howe,” “puked,” “pro-beer,” “scrapper,” “John Mellencamp” and “Springsteen.

Yes, that truly is an exemplary interview, in that TPaw managed to cram in all of those buzzwords into a single conversation, just like all authentic men who work the soil of America.

(Heinze also says Mike Huckabee’s stock is rising in the veepstakes, with the only real problem there being the fact that Mitt and Mike cannot stand one another.)

THE SPECULATRON ELECTORAL MAP PROJECTION

This week, we continue our seer-like process of electoral map projecting, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, an analysis of prevailing economic trends, coin flips, and guided tours of our subconsciousness undertaken whilst tripping on ayahuasca.

This week, we’re feeling the good news for Obama from the Quinnipiac polls in Florida and Ohio. We’re also feeling like the gains Romney was reportedly making in Michigan and Wisconsin may be more than just outlier noise. There’s talk of a deadlock in New Hampshire, and new life for Obama in Virginia. This week, we’ll give Romney the former and Obama the latter. And as Romney’s supposedly dying in the swings at the moment, we’re going to give Obama credit out West. The result is our most Obama-favorable prediction yet. It is also the strangest electoral map we’ve ever drawn. Our advice: short this prediction. (SPOILER ALERT: That will always be our advice.)

electoralmapthree

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