Frank Rich on the National Circus: Roberts Gives Obama a Second Chance

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US President Barack Obama addresses a campaign event at the University of Illinois at Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, on January 11, 2012. Obama sought to strike an implicit contrast with his most likely general election foe Mitt Romney, imploring big businesses to bring home US jobs outsourced overseas. White House officials insist that Obama has not yet started to focus on his bid for a second term in November, but is instead concentrating every day on his job, which he sees as reviving the economy and cutting unemployment. AFP Photo/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/2012 AFP

So, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, after many on both sides predicted otherwise. What's your take?

I had the one reaction I didn’t expect to have: I was moved. An America without an independent judiciary is un-American, and this decision offered the first glimmer of hope since Bush v. Gore that this court may be something other than the partisan tool of a single political party. That’s something of a relief (or at least a temporary one) in the aftermath of Scalia’s outburst earlier in the week, when he turned his dissent on the Arizona immigration decision into a poisonous anti-Obama political rant appropriate to a Koch Brothers conclave. 

Back in March, James Carville said that if the Supreme Court overturned health care, it would be "the best thing that has ever happened to the Democratic Party." Back then, you thought he had a point. How does the ruling affect Obama politically?

Carville argued — and I agreed — that striking down the law could have allowed the Democrats to blame the Party of No for rising costs and every other ill of the existing health-care system. That the law was largely upheld allows Obama the miraculous opportunity to get right what he screwed up before and after the bill was passed: a fresh chance to explain to voters exactly what this bill is and what is good about it. He can also demand that the GOP explain what it will do to match the Affordable Care Act’s most popular provisions. And the answer to that is zero. During the primaries, Romney even came out against the idea of guaranteeing coverage for those with preexisting conditions. 

Earlier this week, Mitt Romney said that if the Court ruled against the health-care law, "the first three and a half years of this president's term would have been wasted." What's he going to say now?

Not that! And his "Obama has failed to lead" refrain will also have to be retired. So will his vow (on his website last time I looked) to appoint more justices like John Roberts to the Supreme Court. 

The mandate, of course, has been a tricky subject for Romney. Will the decision double his resolve to repeal the health-care law?

Double his rhetoric? Yes, because that’s what his party’s radical base wants. But his resolve? Romney has no resolve. He’ll do whatever is expedient at the moment, should he be elected president. Meanwhile, for the rest of election season, he’ll keep having to explain away all the video clips of him cheerleading for the Romneycare insurance mandate he opposes when it’s called Obamacare. Another damning example surfaced the night before the Court’s decision, and you know they will keep raining down. Santorum had it right during the primaries when he said that Romney was the worst possible Republican candidate to argue against the health-care law. And let’s not forget, too, that each day Romney spends talking about health care (and about the subject of the week’s other major decision, immigration) is a day that he violates his own campaign game plan of focusing exclusively on the economy.

Since Citizens United, John Roberts has been branded a hero by conservatives and a villain by liberals. How will this decision affect the view of him, and the Court in general?

Liberals (including me) are already finding new virtues in him, of course! What’s going to be fascinating is to see the right turn on him and try to vilify him as the new David Souter. Expect Alberto Gonzales, the hapless Bush attorney general who has bragged about vetting Roberts, to get some blame, too. Romney may soon be calling for Gonzales to “self-deport.”

Health-care reform has been successfully branded by conservatives as "Obamacare." In the popular perception, does Roberts now own part of this law, too?

Do most Americans know who Roberts is? I wonder. A more likely perception is that the Court as a whole has endorsed “Obamacare.” 

Will Romney and the congressional GOP now try to run against the Supreme Court?

The Tea Party exhibitionists are already rushing to retrieve their adorable Revolution-era costumes and “Don’t Tread on Me” placards from the closet. They will surely take to the streets and town hall meetings to scream about the tyranny of the Supreme Court throughout the summer, in the manner they made famous when first protesting “Obamacare” three summers ago. Every day they do so — and every day that Romney and the congressional GOP take the bait — is another day that the Republicans are not talking about jobs and the economy. And another day when the GOP looks like a radical, angry fringe to voters in the middle.

But the Affordable Care Act remains unpopular. A Fox News poll taken this week found that only 39 percent of American were in favor, the same percentage as when the law was signed. Will this decision affect that?

Absolutely. After Obama endorsed same-sex marriage, it started to rise in the polls, a direct reflection of what the presidential imprimatur meant to some who had been on the fence. The same will be true of the Court’s endorsement of the Affordable Care Act. It’s still a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to some voters — particularly, I suspect, to independents and to those who don’t follow politics all that closely (e.g., independents). At the very least, undecided voters will give the law another close look, which is why it’s so important that Obama seize the moment to make it absolutely clear to all what Americans will gain from it.

CNN and Fox News both reported that the Court had struck down the Affordable Care Act. Then they both reversed course. Florida redux?

Premature adjudication remains the default setting of too much of the news media. Covering a Supreme Court decision like a horse race has led to some real embarrassments — “Dewey Beats Truman” on digital steroids. Most of the predecision predictions were wrong, including the near-universal assumption Anthony Kennedy would be the swing vote. And once the law was upheld, it was fascinating to see how many pundits on Twitter refused to take "yes" for an answer; in their eagerness to be the first on their app with the news, they declared the law “Struck Down,” only to have to recant almost instantly. As for Fox News, its mistake was no surprise; it routinely “reports” the news as it decides it to be, and so this blooper was par for the course. But for CNN, this was a Waterloo — a colossal embarrassment that came soon after the news that its ratings had sunk to their lowest level since 1991. It’s been widely reported that a major shake-up at the network is on the way. Surely, high on the to-do list of any new management tasked with righting CNN will be to sweep away everyone responsible for this fiasco on-camera and off faster than you can say “Ann Curry.”