This week the attention that's mainly been lavished on covering the 2012 campaign got reoriented, slightly, in the direction of the steps of the Supreme Court, for three days of oral argument concerning what amounts to the Obama administration's chief accomplishment -- the Affordable Care Act -- and the relative constitutionality of the individual mandate that underpins its mechanics. So, chances are you already know that things did not exactly go well for the Affordable Care Act.
"Train wreck," is the term CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin used as a catch-all review of the government's lawyering, before he amended it to "plane wreck," and then went searching for the proper maritime disaster to reference if the government's lawyer, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, managed to somehow set the court on fire by accident, whilst arguing severability. (We would have gone with the USS Eastland, in which more than 800 people were killed while the ship was still moored.)
So the phrase of the week is definitely the term for the thing that Verrilli argued inadequately: limiting principle.
Should the Affordable Care Act fall -- and it really now depends on where the egos of Justices Roberts and Kennedy take them either in the direction of historic judicial activism or defining their own day-saving limiting principle -- the limitations placed on many of the candidates could outpace the freedoms they offer. For the Obama administration in particular, it presents the high-tension challenge of running for a second term after your biggest accomplishment has been snatched from your pocket. Will the absence of Obamacare make the Democratic base's heart grow galvanized, or more despondent? And what's the individual mandate-free Plan B that you get passed through a hostile Congress in the second term?
For Mitt Romney, not having to run for office with the similarity of Obamacare and Romneycare shining spectrally on the larger debate, having the issue essentially struck from the stage probably feels freeing at first. Nevermore will he have to parse the puny distinctions between the two health care reforms as if they were wide philosophical gulfs, or have to answer interrogations over whether he truly meant Romneycare to be a "model for the nation." But the freedom comes with a limit -- presumably someone is going to remember to ask him what he plans on replacing Obamacare with, seeing as he's running on "repeal and replace," and the SCOTUS was nice enough to do half the work. Does Mitt Romney have a second health care innovation -- a mandate-less one at that -- to pull from his Bain brain?
Rick Santorum, of course, came to Washington, stood on the steps of the Supreme Court, and declaimed his desire to see the Supreme Court strike it down. To which someone should have said, "Rick, what are you doing, man?" If the SCOTUS knocks down the Affordable Care Act around the time the primaries are wrapping, and Santorum's been successful at keeping Romney from hitting the magic number of 1,144 delegates, then he only has one argument he can make to the party's elite -- that Mitt Romney's insufficiently equipped to argue health care against the incumbent. That's his case, in its entirety. (And you have to get it right, or else he'll swear at you.) If the Supreme Court makes the matter moot, there'll be no convincing anyone that Romney can't carry the banner.
The truth is, the Supreme Court can alter the tenor and course of the race in any number of terrifying and interesting ways, and we're not really convinced that anyone has a plan for what to do if they fail to find in favor of the current law. (Well, except for Gingrich, who we expect is planning on winning the nomination by chloroforming all of delegates in Tampa and performing inception on them.) The decision could create new urgencies, fresh problems or sudden escapes from harm. It's hard to say, and harder still to know anything other than the fact that even on a week where you're put on the newscycle's back-burner, you can still get scorched.
Elsewhere on the campaign trail, Newt Gingrich took a trip to the zoo and hatched a new plan, Ron Paul stayed true to his alliances, Mitt Romney got new endorsements to go with new entanglements, Rick Santorum took a second round of bull droppings from the media, and Barack Obama's great polling numbers ... are also his campaign's new cause for alarm? To find out about all of this week's goings on, please feel free to enter the Speculatron for the week of March 30, 2012.
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