Like Road Runner, the Affordable Care Act continues to outrun its hapless opponents, forcing them to resort to increasingly zany strategies in an effort to stop it. On Thursday, the Supreme Court turned back the latest challenge to Obamacare, rejecting an unusual argument against the law’s subsidies in certain states, which rested on an out-of-context reading of the law’s wording. The very fact that the court agreed to hear the case was a surprise, and the 6-3 ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, rightly leaves the law unscathed.
If this were the cartoons, Wile E. Coyote would be back to his old tricks tomorrow, with a crate of TNT — or perhaps just an even more tendentious legal challenge to the health law. But this is not the cartoons, and opponents of Obamacare would be better advised to take advantage of the court’s decision as an opportunity to move past their crude stop-at-any-cost rhetoric.
When Obama signed the law in 2010, GOP opponents predicted doom and gloom, and vowed to fight it with every weapon they could find. Since the law was so complicated, and its impacts on ordinary consumers so difficult at first to understand, opponents were able to get traction with some of those overheated attacks on the law. But time has not been kind to the credibility of Obamacare foes. The “death panels” and job destruction they warned of have not occurred. Instead, the number of uninsured has dropped. The law is working, and millions of voters now experience its benefits.
At this point, endorsing further efforts to gut Obamacare, without offering a credible alternative, means campaigning against those real gains — and against those real voters. That’s a new reality that some Republican lawmakers clearly already grasp, which is why those who seemed most nervous about King v. Burwell in the months leading up to the decision were Republican governors and state legislators, who understood they’d be blamed if their constituents lost health insurance subsidies as a result of the lawsuit.
Indeed, as a political matter it might have been interesting had the court sided against Obama and called the critics’ bluff. Such a ruling would have had no effect on states like Massachusetts or Connecticut, which have embraced Obamacare. It would have affected only states like Pennsylvania and Michigan that rejected setting up their own insurance exchanges. Such a ruling would have suddenly turned what many states thought was merely a symbolic gesture of resistance to Obamacare into an action with real consequences, and forced politicians in those states to choose between their posturing and their money. The weeks of anticipation before the decision were enough to start tilting the landscape in favor of cooler heads, as the mere prospect of losing subsidies convinced Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Arkansas to take steps to set up exchanges.
For those states to have made decisions based on the law’s actual impact, rather than on 2010-vintage political scaremongering, marks real progress. Opponents are clearly beginning to realize that the sweeping vilifications of the law that might have resonated in 2010, when Obamacare was still poorly understood, won’t work when so many Americans have a personal stake in the Affordable Care Act. The ripples of anxiety that many Republican-led states experienced as the court weighed King v. Burwell should be the case’s most important legacy. Like any complicated law, Obamacare isn’t perfect, and if Republicans can suggest good-faith changes, they should. But it’s time for the cartoon version of health care policy making to end.