Bush v. Burwell.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

How Bush v. Gore Led to Obamacare

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Read More.
a | A

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward comeuppance.

There has been much commentary on the political impact of a pending Supreme Court ruling in King v. Burwell, the lawsuit arguing that a handful of words in the Affordable Care Act should be ripped out of context in order to invalidate Obamacare subsidies on the federal health-insurance exchange. It's a novel, spectacularly cynical, argument (full explanation outsourced to Jonathan Chait). If the court endorses it, the short-term and long-term political consequences may be very different.

At the Washington Examiner, Philip Klein suggests that Congressional Republicans will probably find a way to temporarily ease the plight of those on the federal exchange. But Klein says that Republicans will never enact a permanent fix to Obamacare. That's not surprising. For five years Republicans have engaged in the political equivalent of road rage every time Obamacare passes them on the Beltway. They're not about to start carpooling with it now.

It's questionable whether Republican leaders could summon the votes for even a temporary fix, which would enable them to dispense with the conflict until 2017, when they hope to control the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court, and to wipe away every vestige of Barack Obama. A legislative deadlock seems at least as likely.

Political contingency is a powerful force. Republicans never wanted to provide prescription drug coverage to Americans on Medicare. But in 2003 they did so, financing the benefit through bigger deficits. The stock character of Democratic advertising in the previous campaign cycles had been a granny forced to choose between food and medicine. Republicans decided they didn't want to face Granny again in 2004, so they caved.

Republican rejection of Obamacare, however, is on a whole other level. Falsehoods nurtured blind fury against Obamacare. Fury required new falsehoods to keep it ratcheted. After five years of this, there's simply no way to reconcile the law's continued existence with Republicans' flamboyantly apocalyptic rhetoric.

Greg Sargent of the Washington Post mapped the probable first-line Republican response to a King v. Burwell victory: Blame Obama. Republican Senator John Thune distilled the attack to its 140-character essence:

Thune's tweet is devoid of logic:  His argument is that Obama denies that Obamacare is bad even though terrible consequences will ensue for millions of beneficiaries if Republicans destroy Obamacare.

A dishonest muddle may work for Republicans in the short term, though after five years of vowing to murder Obamacare it will take some effort to convince voters that the knife was in Obama's hand all along. But Republicans won't be able to hide their true position forever. They've never developed a viable alternative to Obamacare for the simple reason that they do not support a viable alternative. They are unwilling to do what is necessary to make health insurance accessible to the millions who can't afford it.

In recent weeks, we've seen Republican presidential candidates stumble on a topic that their party spent more than a decade doctoring for public consumption. Surely little effort was spared over the years to convince Americans that the Iraq War was something other than the fiasco it seemed. Yet too many Republicans neglected to convince themselves. As their clumsy responses to the resurgent Iraq question have shown, reality can be a persistent, pesky foe.

The cynicism and motivated reasoning behind the King case is unlikely to serve them better. The case is like a crime scene with thousands of witnesses. Lawmakers, staff, policy experts and the news media were all there for Obamacare's difficult birth. Too many people know that the King suit is, in its entirety, a partisan ruse.

A Supreme Court decision in King's favor would eclipse even Bush v. Gore as a monument to naked partisanship. The consequences of that earlier ruling, which handed the presidency to George W. Bush, are perhaps worth pondering. Had Bush not been president, and his administration less spectacularly bad, the electoral backlash that produced sweeping Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 would not have happened. Fewer Democrats in office in 2009 and 2010 would've made the Affordable Care Act an even more distant legislative reach. (And forget about a counterfactual of President Al Gore pushing comprehensive health reform through a Republican Congress in 2001.)

I'm not saying that Bush v. Gore is the Darth Vader who gave life to Obamacare's Luke Skywalker. I'm just saying that politics is an endless series of action and reaction, with unintended consequence frequently hogging the spotlight. So the court's five conservatives might want to think hard about their political karma before they do anything really, really stupid.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net