The Corner

Who Says Obama Won?

Just because America and the Constitution lost, doesn’t mean Obama won. A week after Chief Justice Roberts’s “shock heard ’round the world” and contrary to the media’s verdict on the Supreme Court upholding Obamacare’s constitutionality, Obama did not win here. Instead, he avoided what would have been an irrecoverable loss. There is more than a semantic difference between the two — a difference conservatives should both take heart in, and take to heart.

First, we should look at this so-called “victory.” The Supreme Court’s decision stunned even Washington’s institutionalized cynicism. Chief Justice Roberts’s reasoning left virtually everyone but him disbelieving. Liberals felt the Constitution’s Commerce Clause sufficient and Roberts’s reliance on its taxation powers unnecessary. Conservatives felt both the Commerce Clause and Roberts’s reliance on taxation inapplicable. Roberts wrote to no one’s satisfaction save his own; however, by the narrowest of margins, that decided this case. This is supposed to be Obama’s big win?

In truth, there was never a victory for Obama to obtain in this defense of his health-care law.  What he really faced was the prospect of a massive presidency-shattering loss. Had the Court not upheld Obamacare, Obama would have seen his first term’s signature accomplishment — one on which he expended an overwhelming congressional majority, the likes of which few modern presidents have had, and the most productive period of his presidency — utterly refuted.

#more#The Court’s failure to uphold Obamacare’s constitutionality would have invalidated his entire presidency, which would have been deemed to have been squandered for nothing on an unconstitutional attempt that cost his party commanding control of Congress.

Upholding Obamacare merely gives it the de minimus passing grade of being constitutional — something most Americans take as a given for Washington’s actions. “Obamacare: Not Unconstitutional” — that is hardly a ringing endorsement or an enviable bumper sticker for reelection.

The whole exercise before the Supreme Court was nothing more than an attempt to salvage the status quo — not improve it.

What did they salvage? What is still a nationally unpopular policy — one that is wildly so in many places — and one that would stand no chance of being passed again by Congress. The Supreme Court decision does nothing to change those things — any more than the law’s full implementation in the coming years is likely to.

The Supreme Court’s decision is also likely to galvanize conservative opponents of Obama and Obamacare. Nothing makes a bad outcome feel worse, than to feel you were cheated in the process. It is adding insult to injury.

Make no mistake, conservatives feel they were cheated. They are now left with only one prospect: repeal the law through the legislative process. The only way to do that is to win in November. And win big.

Obamacare supporters, already a decided minority, are naturally going to feel like there is nothing more for them to do — the law was passed, signed, and upheld. Case closed, literally. Smugness is not an electoral motivator.

Just because Obama did not lose, does not mean he won. Escaping a devastating defeat — while better by far than the alternative — should not be mistaken for triumph. It is possible to battle without suffering defeat or winning victory. That is what Obama did. The trophy his supporters wish to award is still just Obamacare, and that remains no prize at all.

— J. T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.


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