When President Obama spoke in the aftermath of his victory at the Supreme Court, he never mentioned the word “tax.” The ruling that saved his signature health care legislation made it clear his pledge the bill was not a tax was a clear deception. But while not acknowledging that the Affordable Care Act was passed by means of a political subterfuge, he did expressly ask Americans not to “refight the political battles of two years ago.” That was not so much a plea that the debate about the bill not be revisited but a worry that what will ensue will be a rematch of the 2010 midterm elections which were fought largely on the question of ObamaCare. While the president has every reason to exult today, the biggest question about his re-election effort now becomes whether he can indeed avoid a replay of a contest that ended in a rout of the Democrats.
Though the president is the clear winner today, the Court did hand Republicans an issue on which they can put Democrats at a disadvantage. The ruling established that ObamaCare constitutes a massive across-the-board tax increase that will come down hardest on the middle class, a group of voters who the president insists are exempt from his efforts to hike levies on the rich. But GOP optimists need to understand that presidential elections are very different animals from midterms. Although the Court may have helped revive the Tea Party, circumstances have changed since their heyday in 2010. Nevertheless, the stage has been set for the rematch that the president dreads.
For now, that places the onus on Mitt Romney. The Republican presidential candidate has spent the last two months more or less on cruise control as he allowed the dreadful economic situation, poor jobs reports and a series of administration scandals (the cyber warfare leaks and Fast and Furious) to damage the White House without much effort on his part.
But the Supreme Court’s decision now makes it incumbent on Romney to do more than just let Obama lose the election on his own. If he is to replicate the grass roots revolution that created the 2010 landslide, he needs to start acting less like the C.E.O. of the GOP but as the leader of a movement intent on halting a historic power grab by the federal government.
Given his own spotty record on health care issues, it is an understatement to say this is not exactly in his wheelhouse. And while the Democrats’ recent sallies on his record at Bain Capital are distortions, they have scored some points in making him appear as an out-of-touch plutocrat.
Nevertheless, Romney still has the ability to tap into the fact that most Americans didn’t want ObamaCare and are sure to be dismayed by the Court’s decision. Just as a Court ruling against the bill would have allowed the president to campaign on a platform of expanding health care, the White House victory sets the stage for a Republican groundswell that can tap into widespread dissatisfaction with the tax increase the president has imposed on all Americans. That means President Obama will, almost by definition, be put on the defensive on the two most important issues facing the electorate: the economy and the ObamaCare tax increase.
Though he may be confident about his ability to go toe-to-toe with Romney, the Democrats were swamped two years ago by disgust with his spending and tax policies. Though the terms of the fight may be a bit more advantageous for the president, a rematch of 2010 is exactly what he is going to get.