Frank Rich on the National Circus: Why the Supreme Court Can Only Help Obama

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WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 27:  A Tea Party supporter hold sign as they participate during a "Hands Off My Health Care" rally at the Upper Senate Park March 27, 2012 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court continued to hear oral arguments on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Photo: Alex Wong/2012 Getty Images

If the Supreme Court overturns Obamacare, how does Obama respond?
Just keep moving. The decision is scheduled to come down in June. The election will be more than four months away — an eternity in politics.

But everyone says the Affordable Care Act is Obama’s signature achievement so far. How can he just walk away?
He can take credit for the provisions that Americans love: coverage for the young up to age 26 on their parents’ policies; lowered drug costs for the elderly; and, most of all, the ban on insurance companies either raising premiums or denying coverage to those with preexisting conditions. He can also point out that the Romney-Ryan budget will maim Medicare, another hugely popular health-care provision created by Democrats.

The popular parts of the health-care law could be unsustainable if the Court strikes down the mandate, however. Premiums will skyrocket.
By then it will be 2014, and, as James Carville correctly pointed out this week, the GOP “will own the healthcare system for the foreseeable future.” The Democrats can heap the blame for rising costs and every other health-care ill on the Republicans, who to this day have not offered a plausible alternative to Obamacare. Indeed, Carville argues that a court decision against Obama “will be the best thing that has ever happened to the Democratic Party.” That’s hyperbole, but he’s onto something.

Then where does that leave Romney? Can he Etch A Sketch away from his own support of an individual mandate?
Rick Santorum is right about at least one thing: Romney is the worst possible Republican candidate to debate Obama about health care. If the mandate survives in court, and the GOP base goes ballistic, the Democrats can keep reminding voters that Romney was “the godfather” of the mandate (as David Plouffe put it last weekend) in Massachusetts and can keep replaying that “I like mandates” Romney clip from that 2008 GOP debate. But it gets even worse for Mitt. He revealed (in a Tuesday night interview with Jay Leno, yet)  that he is even against the Obamacare provision favored by 85 percent of the public, according to a recent poll — the requirement that insurance companies cover those who are already sick. Here’s how Romney put it to Jay: “If they are 45 years old and they show up and say I want insurance because I have heart disease, it's like, hey guys — we can't play the game like that.” Turns out he has no more empathy for that middle-aged man with heart disease than he does for the workers he shredded in his lucrative games at Bain.

So who would a repeal of Obamacare hurt most?
The biggest victims will be the some 30 million Americans who have no health insurance. The rest of us, who one way or another will keep picking up the bill for their medical care, will also pay a price. In the political arena, the court’s decision, up or down, is a win-win for Obama and a lose-lose for Romney, who at this late date hasn’t figured out how to answer health-care questions on the Tonight Show, let alone in a debate with the president.

The Obama administration pushed to get this case on the docket before the election. Are they going to regret that?
For all the reasons above, no. It was a shrewd move. Whatever happens, it diffuses the issue well before November 6. 

A hot mike caught Obama telling Russian president Dmitri Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" to negotiate missile defense after the elections. Can the Romney camp make political hay out of that?
Karl Rove is already on record saying that this supposed gaffe could have “a big negative impact on Mr. Obama’s reelection.” But the impact, if there was any, has already dissipated because (a) what Obama said to Medvedev had the virtue of being actually true; (b) America’s nuclear strategy with Russia, though a 24/7 obsession to the neocons Rove pals around with, is no more determinative an issue in the 2012 election than any other foreign policy matter, the war in Afghanistan included; (c) Romney has already muffed his response, by vilifying not only Obama but Russia — in hysterical terms more appropriate to the Khrushchev era. Memo to Mitt: The Cold War is over. Few Americans care that the Pope is currently frolicking with the Castro brothers in Havana.

Until this week's polls, Santorum had been trouncing Romney in Wisconsin. Now Romney is ahead. Is the GOP nomination battle over?
You betcha. And the big winner remains Obama, who is ahead in the three battleground states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in the new Quinnipiac poll out this week, thanks to the wholesale desertion of women from the GOP. A new national Washington Post-ABC News poll finds Obama’s approval rating at 53, Romney’s at 34.

It’s early, and  couldn’t Romney turn this around?
Of course. But what exactly is he running on? He can’t run against Obamacare/Romneycare if it’s struck down (or even if it isn’t) or against the Obama economy if it continues to improve. Perhaps he can repurpose his “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” op-ed for some other troubled American industry that he wants to “fix.” 

What's Santorum's endgame?
No one loathes Romney more than Santorum, unless it’s Gingrich. If Mitt doesn’t nail down the required 1,144 delegates prior to the convention, this tag team of bad boys will run him down throughout the spring and summer unless they’re bought off by the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson. 

Now that Newt's laid off a third of his staff and seems to be campaigning mostly via Twitter, what is he hanging on for?
It’s odd that Newt, who prides himself on being America’s most preeminent historian, doesn’t seem to have a clue that he is history.