A busy week for activist judges, carving up Obama's health care law

Winners and Losers: The Supreme Court's activists (the conservatives) strutted their stuff in questioning the Affordable Care Act, sending their supporters into victory lap mode. Back here, Rob McKenna is probably fine either way.

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Winners and Losers: The Supreme Court's activists (the conservatives) strutted their stuff in questioning the Affordable Care Act, sending their supporters into victory lap mode. Back here, Rob McKenna is probably fine either way.

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?"

Romney's gafferama also continued unaided this week, including a "humorous" anecdote about his father laying off autoworkers and the revelation that his new home will feature an elevator for his wife's Cadillacs. After all that, Arlen Specter came out with a comment that might spur your desire to have this image wiped from your memory: "Mitt Romney," he said, "has changed positions more often than a pornographic movie queen." In religion, he follows the Book of Mormon; in politics, the Kama Sutra?

Winner: Hoodies. Geraldo has apologized (sort of) for saying that brown people who wear them are just asking to be shot; a Congressman was removed from the House floor for wearing one. I suspect they must be out-selling the Etch-a-Sketch this week.

Loser: First Congressional District candidate Darcy Burner who, like Miss Seattle, discovered that old Tweets never die. Burner committed a sin by calling Obama the "R" word ("Republican"), a common pouty lefty complaint. More bad news: she's in a wrestling match with fellow former Microsofter Suzan DelBene, who picked up major labor endorsements in the district this week.

Winner: Cars in Seattle. The Washington State Department of Transportation released images of what the new 520 bridge will look like — call it the Great Wall of Lake Washington. Or the Lake Washington Viaduct. The spirit of R. H. Thomson is alive and well.

It's also inhabiting the body of Mike McGinn, who's figured out that potholes and road repair are the way to the peoples' hearts. McGinn announced his "Focus on the Basics" campaign, which sounds like the post-it note your campaign consultant sticks on your bathroom mirror ("Message: I care"). Announced McGinn, "Whether through large scale roadway projects or filling potholes, we're working to enhance Seattle's roads." It's the potholes, stupid!

Winner: Bill Ruckelshaus, for his first-time, first-person account of Watergate's Saturday Night Massacre published here on Crosscut. The massacre was a pivotal event in the downfall of Richard Nixon when principled members of Nixon's own administration took a stand against presidential overreach. As the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in approaches this summer, it's good to have key scandal figures (good guys and bad guys) give insider accounts and remind people of this turning-point crisis in American history.

Knute Berger discusses the news of the week on a KUOW Weekday roundtable led by KUOW's Steve Scher at 10 a.m. on Fridays. Hear it at KUOW 94.9 FM or online.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.