This week's big political story has national and local ramifications. The U.S. Supreme Court took up the case of America vs. Obamacare. There were multiple big winners coming out of the public hearings, the first being the Supreme Court itself, which is re-establishing itself as the Big Dog of the three branches of government: It ain't law unless we say it is.
Second, the conservative-activist court seemed to be on full, confident display, legitimizing the arguments against the mandates. If nothing else, the court hearings reaffirmed that there is a legitimate Constitutional debate, and that the challenge from the states' attorneys general was hardly frivolous, as some on the left had claimed.
Still, given the election decision in 2000, one remembers that politics can trump the Constitution. That and the fact that Justice Antonin Scalia spent the hearings spouting GOP talking points and worried that Obama was going to send him to federally mandated fat camp.
The week's hearing also spooked progressives: Jeffrey Toobin predicted doom for health care; some on the right started taking (premature) victory laps; Democratic consultant James Carville said losing would be better for progressives anyway; and Michael Kinsely speculated that the court might be rolling back more than health care, but 70 years-worth of other laws. In short, the sky is about to fall on liberalism.
Washington attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, who signed on to the Obamacare challenge, has major skin in the game. The court's decision could have an impact on the governor's race here. If the court upholds the Affordable Care Act, McKenna's side loses, but that would also take him off the hook from potentially alienating some of the swing Democrats and independents McKenna is trying to attract (no harm, no foul). He can simply say he lost a principled argument in court and let Obama care kick in.
If McKenna's side wins, however, he gains the Constitutional argument, but is then faced with having to come up with a viable alternative that will work in Washington state. He'll have to appease angry progressive voters, and as Carville has suggested, McKenna's Republican party will then "own" the health-care cost problem. McKenna wants to bring down the health-care slice of the state budget, but without some kind of comprehensive reform, that could prove difficult, especially if mandates — state and federal —are tossed out.
McKenna's own reading of the court is that the hated mandate will die, but other provisions of Obamacare will live and that the court will act with some restraint. It remains to be seen if that's an oxymoron or not, but it could be the kind of carefully parsed political outcome McKenna relishes: having it both ways.
Since we're on the subject of McKenna, he had a winning week in other campaign news. Jay Inslee finally agreed to a debate (McKenna wants 15), Inlsee reversed himself and embraced a McKenna-backed education reform on teacher evaluations, and the Democrat decided not to back a marijuana initiative. McKenna is getting to set the rules of the campaign and is nudging Inslee to the right.
More winners and losers of the week:
Loser: Obama committed a classic gaffe, telling the truth in front of a live microphone, saying he'd have more flexibility negotiating with the former Evil Empire after the election. No surprise, absolutely true, but it should have remained unspoken because it played to the right-wing meme that Obama's a commie-loving socialist Kenyan revolutionary from the '60s who just can't wait to give America away to its enemies.
Loser: Romney pounced in order to capitalize on the president's gaffe, but turned his pounce into another Romney blunder by announcing that Russia was "our number one geopolitical foe." This was news to both the Russians and the Axis of Evil. And surely the Chinese are asking, "What about us?"
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