Whether Chief Justice John Roberts changed his mind or is the latest Republican to “evolve” on the bench, he has done the improbable: Liberals are praising a Supreme Court that they had trashed as a player in a right-wing conspiracy. Old sins such as Citizens United are washed away, as are President Obama’s spring musings about the dangers of an unelected court unaccountable to public opinion. The about-face is jarring, even in a political atmosphere in which the right result typically makes right.
I’ll offer some quick cautionary notes, though, on the politics, and on the arguably more significant trend signified by the outcome. First, a rebuttal to Democratic wishfulness that health care is now a political winner for Barack Obama: The better evidence is that it will be a media-inflated victory that is worth no votes. Just as Democrats miscalculated in 2010 by assuming that the passage of the health-care law would prove that they could get things done, they are probably drawing the wrong lesson today if they assume the Court’s rescue of a deeply unpopular law somehow validates the Obama term.
The notion that the Supreme Court’s imprimatur alters the electoral equation implies that the hostility to Obamacare among independents and swing voters is related to their doubts about the law’s legitimacy. To the contrary, there is considerably more polling evidence that the political middle’s resistance to the Affordable Care Act is grounded in bread-and-butter realities: sticker shock at the cost; reflexive doubts that any fledgling federal bureaucracy will work the way it is supposed to; and a suspicion that for all the hoopla, the reform won’t lower their premiums or improve their coverage. The constitutional gripe never really permeated the congressional debate, and it has become a rallying point only within the GOP’s tea-party base and on the intellectual right: two places that are not exactly part of the persuadable-voter universe, and two sectors that aren’t about to rethink their opinion based on a one-vote escape act.
From the Romney campaign’s $1 million online fundraising haul in the hours after the opinion, to the usual eventuality that a judicial setback only galvanizes the political losers, there are all manner of reasons to think that a campaign looking for a conservative cause now has one. But in fairness, that cause should be something deeper than the vagaries of the health-care overhaul. The larger threat — and the most important victory won today — lies in the Left’s continuing capacity to achieve political outcomes out of all proportion to their public appeal.
It is not news that most liberals regard the courts as a bulwark against public opinion, and that they celebrate the judiciary’s capacity to detach itself from the mainstream. What is more striking is the evolving liberal ideal that the overall political process need not and should not mimic popular sentiment either. Why bother, when reputation-sensitive elites can be persuaded without relying on a ballot — simply by invoking their desire to align with “history” and their skittishness about following the “uninformed”?
This is a crafty, disingenuous sleight of hand that the Left is practicing, but it is winning victories (and for the moment may have captured John Roberts). Victories, mind you, with a cost: a further widening of the gap between Middle America and the elite, and a little bit more distrust poured into our politics.