The Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision on Thursday to uphold most of President Obama’s health care law represents a hurdle cleared for Mr. Obama. He had been at risk of seeing his most ambitious policy initiative — and most expensive, in terms of the political capital it required — neutered or
overturned by the court.
If Mr. Obama is the victor from the standpoint of public policy, however, some observers have claimed that the decision could help Mitt Romney in terms of electoral politics.
With due respect, I think this counterintuitive conclusion is too cute by half. It may involve the same sort of wishful thinking that liberals were guilty of when some began to argue that the court striking the health care bill would actually help Mr. Obama politically.
Other analyses issued before the decision had implausibly argued that both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama could benefit from the law being upheld. They seem to forget that in contrast to public policy, electoral politics is largely a zero-sum game.
The health care law is likely to remain fairly unpopular; opinions about it have been essentially unchanged for most of the last two years. The bill was probably partially responsible for the significant losses that Democrats endured in the 2010 midterm elections.
But continued dissatisfaction over the health care bill was presumably already priced into the polls. A decision that upholds the status quo is not likely to change that much.
To the extent there are marginal effects of the court’s decision, they would seem to be positive for Mr. Obama. The framework of the bill has now been endorsed by the court, including by John G. Roberts Jr., the relatively conservative and relatively well-respected Chief Justice who wrote the majority opinion.
To be clear, the risks to Mr. Obama may have been somewhat asymmetric. A decision to strike the law might have harmed him more than the decision to uphold it will help.
And be wary of whatever the polls say for the next week or two — the short-term reaction to the news of the ruling may not match its long-term political effects. As before, the presidential election is mostly likely to be contested mainly on economic grounds. Next week’s jobs report is likely to have a larger effect on the election than what the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.
But particularly given the public’s confusion over the health care law, my view has been to keep it simple: Mr. Obama got the good headline here, and that is likely to be most of what the public reacts to.
It is not as though, if the law had been struck down, Republicans would have stopped talking about the folly of the legislation. Members of the public, in mostly opposing the law, had not been objecting to its technical details, some of which they actually supported when quizzed about the specific aspects of the health care overhaul.
Instead, it was to the impression that it represented an overreach on behalf of Mr. Obama — at a time when there is profound skepticism about the direction of government and the efficacy of its policy — that left him vulnerable.
When the dust settles, it seems implausible that Mr. Obama would have been better off politically had his signature reform been nullified by the court. Then Mr. Obama’s perceived overreach would have had the stench of being unconstitutional.
Some of the analyses that claim the law could help Mr. Romney instead argue that Thursday’s decision could motivate the Republican base. But the Republican base was already reasonably well motivated for the election. A decision to strike down the law, meanwhile, would have represented a victory for movement conservatism — and victory can be its own motivating force.
Although some liberals had claimed that a decision to strike the law could have motivated Democratic turnout in anger against the Supreme Court’s decision, it can likewise be argued that it would have left Democrats despondent, particularly given that any efforts to replace an overturned law would have faced huge political obstacles in the near term. The effects on the party bases are hard to sort out.
It is what passes for conventional wisdom that may have been the clearest loser with the court’s decision. Sentiment in prediction markets and among pundits had been that the law was more likely than not to be overturned.
As I wrote on Wednesday, some of these analysis may have gotten ahead of themselves in trying to read the tea leaves.
Statistical methods to predict the court’s decision, which have been more reliable than expert judgment in the past, had pointed to a case that was too close to call.
In another blow to conventional wisdom, the decision to uphold the law came in a 5-to-4 vote, but with Chief Justice Roberts voting with the four liberals on the court while Justice Anthony M. Kennedy voted with the conservatives — and he signed a strongly worded dissenting opinion that claimed the entire law should have been struck down.
This permutation had been considered unlikely by experts, most of whom had predicted a 6-to-3 ruling for the law, or a 5-to-4 ruling against it, with Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy voting together in either case. And if the decision had been 5 to 4 in favor of the law, it was thought that Justice Kennedy and not Chief Justice Roberts would have been more likely to join the majority.
Who came out looking better than the pundits? Interestingly, it may be high school students.
High school students participating in a Supreme Court “fantasy league” sponsored by the nonprofit Harlan Institute had been about evenly divided in predicting the court’s decision, with 57 percent thinking the mandate would be overturned and 43 percent saying it would be upheld.
Nor did the oral arguments in the case, which substantially affected the conventional wisdom, alter the students’ opinions much. Instead, they had seen the case as a tossup from the beginning.
I suspect these students would have been wise enough to avoid some of the counterintuitive speculation about the decision’s political effects that you will now be seeing on television.