As the Republican presidential primaries unfold, one event looms in the background that will have a dramatic effect on the November election.
In late March, the Supreme Court will hear five-and-a-half hours of oral arguments on constitutional challenges to President Obama’s national health care law and the court is expected to render its decision by the end of June.
It will be one of the most closely watched cases in American history and each possible outcome carries different political ramifications.
Though the legalities are a bit more complicated, there are three basic outcomes possible: The law is upheld; the law is fully overturned; or the law is partially overturned.
If the law is upheld as constitutional, it would be an utter disaster for advocates of small government. If Congress can force Americans to purchase a product they do not want, it would mean that there are effectively no limits on congressional power.
But as much as it would be an affront to individual liberty, it would probably be a big boost to Republicans in both the presidential and congressional elections.
Though, on the one hand, Obama would get to claim vindication if the Supreme Court upheld the law, the backlash against the verdict would be fierce, not only among conservatives, but among independents who overwhelmingly oppose the law’s requirement that individuals purchase health insurance.
Last month, 67 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of the mandate, compared with just 30 percent who had a favorable view, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The same poll found that by a more than three-to-one margin (54 percent to 17 percent), Americans believe the Supreme Court should strike down the mandate.
A Supreme Court verdict upholding Obamacare would be the one thing that could galvanize conservative grass-roots activists who have been underwhelmed by the weak GOP presidential field.
It would mean that the only remaining chance of repealing the health care law would be to elect a Republican president and as many Republicans to the House and Senate as possible.
If the Supreme Court strikes down the entire law, it would be a joyous occasion for conservatives. And it would be a powerful indictment of Obama — that he spent more than a year of his presidency pushing through a law that turned out to be unconstitutional.
But at the same time, it could have the opposite effect on voter enthusiasm. If Obamacare is struck down it would be one less thing to motivate conservatives who are turned off by the Republican nominee, or disillusioned with Republicans in general. And no doubt, it could energize liberals, who will spin a decision striking down the law as coming from a “conservative activist court.”
It’s a long shot that the Supreme Court would strike down the entire law, however. More likely is that the justices strike down the individual mandate, but leave it up to Congress to rework the rest of the law. This means that several of the scenarios outlined above are possibilities.
Conservatives can still hammer Obama’s law as unconstitutional — and if Mitt Romney is the nominee, he’d no doubt use that to distinguish his Massachusetts legislation from Obama’s national law. But there would still be plenty of work to be done legislatively, meaning conservatives would still be motivated in November.
On the flip side, the individual mandate is the most unpopular aspect of the health care law, so removing it could decrease public support for full repeal among the broader public.
No matter what the outcome, however, the Supreme Court’s health care decision will immediately reshuffle the 2012 deck in races across the country.
Philip Klein is senior editorial writer for The Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com.