With only days and perhaps even just a few hours left before the Supreme Court rules on the constitutional challenge to the Affordable Care Act, the second guessing has already begun among Democrats. Though the outcome is known only to the justices and their clerks and secretaries, in the months since the oral arguments revealed there was a good chance it would be overturned, the president’s party has sunk deeper and deeper into depression over the possibility. Though they may yet win, as today’s front-page feature in the New York Times reveals, many on the left are already starting the recriminations, with the White House and the congressional Democrats getting the lion’s share of the blame.
The president and congressional leaders such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are being lambasted for not taking the challenge to the bill’s constitutionality seriously as they forced it through the legislature. Pelosi’s response to the suggestion that there was any doubt about its legality was a now famous, “Are you serious? Are you serious?” But though that is a remark that will go down in the history books if the judges say no to ObamaCare, scapegoating her, the president or the Justice Department lawyers who did not anticipate the possibility is a waste of time. So, too, are some other liberal responses, such as liberal law professor Jonathan Turley’s suggestion in Friday’s Washington Post that the problem is that nine is too small a number of judges to make such a momentous decision, a solution Democrats won’t embrace if Mitt Romney wins in November and is the one doing the nominating of the extra judges.
The problem wasn’t the tactics pursued by ObamaCare advocates either in court or outside it. The problem was a bill that proposed an expansion of federal power that even the Commerce Clause — that catchall mechanism used to justify every new federal power grab for a century — couldn’t support.
The bill did help generate a political earthquake in the form of the Tea Party that led to the Republican landslide in the 2010 midterms that erased the Democratic majority who passed the act. But better advocacy on the part of the bill’s supporters would not have prevented conservatives and libertarian lawyers from bringing forth the successful challenges that two lower federal courts have already accepted.
If Democrats like Pelosi couldn’t imagine anyone taking those challenges seriously it is not just because they live in a liberal echo chamber where conservative ideas are viewed with as much contempt as conservative politicians. It is because after nearly 100 years of liberal judicial activism that created the current federal leviathan, they had come to believe there were no limits on that power. If Congress could regulate any kind of commerce, why wouldn’t liberals think that this extended even to commerce that didn’t already exist or even inactivity and thereby make it legal for the government to demand that individuals purchase health insurance?
Since for decades liberals have treated a more libertarian approach to the constitution with scorn, why would anyone, especially that former law professor sitting in the White House, have thought differently?
Of course, as the Times points out, the constitutional challenge would have been avoided if the legislation had been framed more explicitly as a tax which the federal government has the right to levy. But Obama and Pelosi had a hard enough time getting a Democrat-controlled Congress to pass it without explicitly selling it as a massive tax increase though that is, in effect, what the bill is. In that form, it would never have been adopted.
As for Turley’s court-packing scheme, the transparently political nature of his appeal renders it absurd. He’s right that there’s nothing sacred about the number nine but since the current format has been in place since 1869, there’s no reason to change this tradition. Any expansion would be inherently political, an attempt to overturn the current court majority by a president and a Congress that didn’t like their opinions on the constitution. If Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t get away with such an idea in 1938 when he proposed it, does anyone seriously believe Barack Obama or Mitt Romney or any other president in the foreseeable future can do so?
The liberal dilemma has no more to do with the number of justices than it does with supposed shortcomings in the strategy adopted by the White House or Congressional Democrats. If the bill goes down this week it will be because a majority on the court have realized that a government that is given the power to invent as well as to regulate commerce is a threat to our liberty. And no clever tactic can make that acceptable to the majority of Americans who oppose ObamaCare or the judges who will vote against it.