On Friday, the Supreme Court voted on the constitutionality of the national health care overhaul (also known as ObamaCare, or, according to the GOP, the Obama abomination). As we wait for the ruling, no one can help but to speculate on how a 5-4 verdict against the law might impact the general election. From my perspective, I'll be relieved that we can now remove the popular and overused phrase "Repeal Obamacare" from the GOP vernacular (a Bachmann favorite). More importantly, however, is that this will certainly be a positive development for Romney, giving him a few new lines of attack, while neutralizing his arguably biggest weakness. But, does it swing the pendulum of the election far enough in his direction to make a difference?
In case you missed Peggy Noonan's weekend article in the WSJ, I believe she put it best when she described Obama as having "wasted time that was precious" and further alluded that the administration "follow[ed] an imaginary bunny that disappeared down a rabbit hole." Make no mistake about it -- the president took a gamble when he made his momentous health reform speech in front of the American Medical Association in June 2009. At the time, the Dow Jones was hovering between eight and nine thousand points (about 40 percent below its 2007 highs), unemployment was at 9.5 percent nationally, and the potential impact of the president's stimulus package remained uncertain. Yet, the administration still decided to make the landmark of its first term a health reform bill with a $1 trillion price tag.
We can be sure that the GOP nominee will consistently remind the American people that while our economy was suffering, the president (a former law professor) was busy advocating reforms that weren't within the government's power. And this argument is not a weak one. After all, this was the focus of the administration (and therefore Congress) for about 9 months, from June 2009 until the Affordable Care Act was passed in March 2010.
Beyond President Obama, a ruling disavowing a mandate will also serve to downplay the importance of the GOP front-runner's "biggest weakness." With a newly realized position of strength, Romney will be able to reiterate that what he enacted on behalf of the citizens of Massachusetts not only fit within the limits of the state's constitution but was also the right reform for her people (and, most importantly, not a model he would support at the Federal level). He will also be able to criticize Obama for a failure that can't be blamed on Republicans (e.g., deficits from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Moreover, it will allow Romney to own the forward-thinking narrative on health care reform if he is able to present an alternative approach, ultimately putting the president on defense.
At the end of the day, yes, Obama wasted a lot of executive branch bandwidth on Obamacare, and yes, Romney will have a different avenue through which to attack Obama on health reform. But, the central theme of the 2012 election won't really change. In reality, the performance of the economy and the public's perception of how well Obama handled the crisis will be that much more important to his success in the upcoming election. After all, it will now be one of the few metrics against which voters can evaluate his performance. So, like both Team Romney and Team Obama, we'll all continue to watch the unemployment figures, home and gas prices, and the stock market (among others) as November approaches. For better or worse it will be those numbers (not the outcome of the Supreme Court vote) that will determine our next president.