A healthy attitude

Thursday morning, after CNN and Fox briefly muddied the waters, Americans learned that the Supreme Court had upheld the Affordable Care Act, including its “individual mandate”.  Chief Justice John Roberts had pulled together enough votes to sustain nearly all of the health care law.

And everyone - everyone  - had something to say about it.

But most were grasping for words.  The Court sustained the law - not under the Commerce Clause - but on the much narrower basis of Congress’ tax power.

So - where does that  leave us?

Opponents of the law are girding their loins for a full-blown Armageddon - starting with Eric Cantor’s decision to vote on a repeal bill in the House in mid-July.

This vote will almost certainly pass in the Republican House - and be DOA in the Democratic Senate.

And I’m guessing that will be that.

You see, in American political history, there’s a long tradition of fighting hard - even dirty - right up to the moment when somebody wins.  And then, suddenly, we just stop.
It happened with the Constitution.  Many Americans regarded the Constitution as giving far too much power to a distant, central government.  At Virginia’s ratification convention, Patrick Henry thundered against the Constitution.  In other states, other Anti-Federalists did the same.

But Virginia - and ten other states - ratified; Congressmen were elected; and George Washington was chosen as our first President.

And, as Washington made his way to New York to be sworn in, Americans flocked to cheer him.  Not just Federalists - but Anti-Federalists as well.  The battle had been fought.  Someone had won.  Time to move on.

It’s happened again and again.  When I was a kid, Chesterfield’s schools were desegregated.  Segregationists howled that the world was coming to an end.  But at Thomas Dale, a handful of black students showed up - and Mr. Crump, the faculty, and most of the students did their best to make it work.

Around that time, bitter battles were being fought in Congress over the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  But when they passed, Congress went back to passing routine laws, holding hearings, and wasting money - as Congresses have done since 1789.

Twelve years ago, officials in Florida made a mess of counting the votes for President.  The Supreme Court ultimately got involved.  The case of Bush vs. Gore was - in the judgment of millions - a travesty.  But no one started a revolution.  The  Court had ruled.  We  had a President.  Life went on.

It would be easy enough to point to the big exception in our national history - the Civil War.  But, in general, Americans’ attitude toward important political decisions has been much like our attitude toward major sporting events.  We cheer our lungs out, abuse the officials, and occasionally use language we didn’t learn from our mothers.  
And when the game ends, we have a beer - with supporters of both teams.

I played Rugby in law school.  It doesn’t get much more violent than Rugby.  But the after-game parties - attended by both teams - are always filled with laughter, humor, drink, and song.

So here’s how  I see it.

Two years ago, Congress passed the ACA.  President Obama signed it.  Because of its length and complexity, few Americans fully understood it - so they took predictable positions.

Obama fans, instinctive liberals, and those who stood to benefit from the law tended to embrace it.  Those who loathe Mr. Obama, hard-core Republicans, and those who get their opinions from AM radio took the other side.

Those who want a single, national health care system were torn between dismay at the ACA’s reliance on private insurance - and dismay at the possibility that its opponents would repeal it and go back to the untenable mess it replaced.

And Americans who actually understand the Constitution, in historical context, were horrified, since we realized that the individual mandate - resting on the Commerce Clause - represented a radical extension of Federal power, at the expense of individual  liberty.

Obviously, the whole business would  come before the Supreme Court - which is why no one, on either side, was prepared to give up the struggle.  When the President signed the ACA into law, it  was halftime - not the end of the game.  No one was in the mood for handshakes and post-game revelry.

Fortunately, Chief Justice Roberts managed to do the right thing, in exactly the right way.  The ACA  survives.  And the Constitution survives.

Game over.  Time to move on.

For a little while, Republicans will test the viability of health care as an issue for November.  I’m betting they won’t waste much time on this strategy.

As a practical matter, the  ACA  will be with us for a long time.  Eric Cantor’s “repeal” will be pure theatre.

The only way to repeal the ACA will be for the Republicans to hold the House this November - which is not guaranteed.  

And capture the Senate - by a 60-40 majority, which is nearly impossible.

And elect Mitt Romney.

And hope that President Romney will prove to be a conservative - rather than the Massachusetts moderate who worked so hard to enact a state health law remarkably like the ACA.

To be sure, passionate conservatives and highly-partisan Republicans will want to fight on.

But American elections are won in the center - among moderate voters who dislike both parties.  And for those Americans, the Supreme Court’s decision has marked the end of the story.

If Republicans make health care a central issue this fall, they will lose, and lose badly.  Knowing that, their strategists will soon focus on issues that give them a better chance of winning.

And in the next two years - as various features of the ACA come into effect - the law will become part of the fabric of most Americans’ lives, budgets,  and long-range financial plans.

Then, it will really be “Game over”.


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