How Liberals Would React to a Health-Care Defeat

US President Barack Obama greets the Supreme Court Justices prior to delivering his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill January 25, 2011 in Washington, DC. Photograph by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Getty Images

Today, the Supreme Court begins hearing oral arguments in the case brought by 26 states to overturn President Obama’s health-care law, the signature achievement of his first term. Were the court to strike down the law, it would be a tremendous blow to Democrats and huge a setback in the decades-long effort to extend health insurance to all Americans. But in the short term, it might possibly improve Obama’s reelection chances by energizing a liberal base that is less enthusiastic about their candidate than four years ago.

The health-care law has been fairly unpopular throughout its two-year existence, with polls consistently showing a higher percentage of people disapproving of it than supporting it. But as a recent New York Times/CBS News poll demonstrates, views of the law break down pretty cleanly along partisan lines: A majority of Democrats support it, while a slightly larger majority of Republicans oppose it. A negative court decision would anger Democrats not only because it would invalidate the central liberal achievement of the past several decades, but because it would almost certainly be viewed as a political—rather than a jurisprudential—action. A Bloomberg News poll earlier this month showed that nearly 75 percent of Americans believe the court’s decision will be based on politics. The numbers are slightly higher among independents (80 percent) and Republicans (74 percent) than Democrats (67), but given liberals’ fraught history with recent court decisions (Bush v. Gore, anyone?), their number would surely leap if the health-care law were struck down.

The first opportunity for liberals to express anger about this presumed political affront would come on Election Day—and as any political consultant will tell you, there is no better motivator than anger to get people to the polls.

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