The Supreme Court's upholding of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a victory for President Obama, but one with a big problem attached to it. After all, there is a deadly tripwire concealed inside the court's seemingly benign ruling, and that is the court's declaration that the individual mandate provision, the heart of Obamacare, is legally valid because it is a de facto "tax."
By labeling the mandate a tax, the Supreme Court has given the Republicans powerful ammunition for the Presidential campaign. From now till November, it is a safe bet that Mitt Romney will take every opportunity to demonize the healthcare law as a vehicle for more taxation, and in the tough economic climate of today, his argument might hold some power. Scaring voters with the specter of new taxes may not be novel, but it is tried and tested.
So now we have to ask, what exactly did the Supreme Court do here? On the surface, they acted in a non-partisan manner to deliver real justice, but reading between the lines, it seems more as if Justice John Roberts deliberately sandbagged President Obama. Had the Supreme Court ruled against the healthcare law, or even just the mandate, the public's respect for the court would have declined dramatically, and Justice Roberts knew that. As an alternative, it appears as if he hatched a strikingly clever plan: uphold the law but interpret it in such a way as to give the Republicans a real chance to rally support against Obamacare and hopefully repeal it in the future. Not only that, but the ruling also limits Congress' authority to regulate commerce and weakens its power over the states.
One of Justice Roberts' statements in the opinion, which he wrote himself, drives his personal prejudice home very clearly: "It Is Not Our Job to Protect the People From the Consequences of Their Political Choices." It does not take a political analyst to decipher the ominous implication in that statement -- Justice Roberts thinks that the American people made the wrong choice by electing Obama and then letting him pass the healthcare law, but that it's just not the Supreme Court's role to do anything about it. Talk about passive aggressive.
The current Supreme Court may not be malicious but neither is it entirely impartial in its rulings, or apolitical. From Citizens United to immigration (by upholding the "show your papers" provision of the Arizona law) and now healthcare, the conservative wing of the court has repeatedly shown its preference for ideology over law.
Since the healthcare ruling, the news has been full of commentary about how Justice Roberts preserved the integrity of the court by upholding the president's signature law, but the truth is he did nothing of the sort. What he actually did was play a masterful stroke of chess that protects him and the other conservative Justices from public ridicule (save from a few right-wing extremists) while still playing ball with the Republicans. Justice Roberts may be conservative in his judicial thinking but he is also smart enough to know that striking down a populist law that will provide relief for millions of middle class and poor Americans is really bad politics.
Given all this, we should stop idolizing Justice Roberts' seemingly noble gesture and recognize it for what it really is -- a political gambit to help Romney win the elections in November and to push the United States towards the conservative agenda incognito. Only time will tell what this all leads to, but there is a very real chance that the vote that Justice Roberts cast in favor of the healthcare law was his most conservative one yet.