Republican sound and fury over Obamacare


Chief justice John Roberts has appalled his fellow conservatives by finding the Bill constitutional

THE VETERAN Republican strategist Mark McKinnon called it “message mayhem”, but mayhem, full stop, might be a more accurate way of describing the aftermath of the supreme court’s ruling on June 28th to uphold the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Republicans ganged up on the Irish-American chief justice, John Roberts, who appalled his fellow conservatives by finding the Bill constitutional according to legal, rather than political, criteria. “Treachery!” screamed the former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Roberts “should be ashamed of himself,” scolded Donald Trump, the property billionaire, reality TV star and supporter of the Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

The conservative radio host Glenn Beck sold T-shirts with the word “Coward” printed beneath Roberts’ photograph.

Michael Savage, another talk show host, suggested Roberts was rendered irrational by medication he may or may not take to prevent seizures. John Yoo, who was a lawyer for the Bush administration – which appointed Roberts – said the vetting process had gone wrong, and that if Romney is elected “he will obviously have to be more careful” in choosing supreme court justices.

Roberts said “it seemed like a good idea” to take a holiday on the “impregnable island fortress” of Malta.

The Democratic grin and metaphorical swagger have grown more marked this week, as Romney split with Republicans over the meaning of the supreme court ruling.

Republicans thought they’d found a silver lining in the hated decision: the court ruled that Obamacare is constitutional as a tax, since Americans who refuse to purchase healthcare insurance will be charged a small penalty.

“What we have now is the biggest tax increase in the history of the world!” Beck crowed. “What we have been told by the chief justice of the supreme court and four liberals: Obamacare is just a massive tax increase. That’s all it is. Obama lied to us about that.”

The Fox News commentator James Pinkerton went further, describing Obamacare as, quite simply, “the biggest tax hike in the history of the universe”.

Economists have said that even when one adds up the 1 per cent of Americans who are expected to pay the penalty, the $200 billion raised from Medicare payroll taxes on the wealthy, $60 billion in taxes on insurance companies, and $30 billion on “Cadillac” luxury insurance policies, Obamacare still constitutes only the 10th largest tax increase since 1950, smaller than those imposed by presidents Reagan and Clinton.

Romney’s spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom (the man who told us Romney would erase his policies “like an Etch A Sketch” after the primaries) said the Republican candidate “disagreed with the ruling of the court . . . He agreed with the dissent written by [the arch-conservative] Justice Scalia, which very clearly stated that the mandate was not a tax”.

Romney has a personal problem with calling Obamacare by the dreaded T-word. If Obama’s individual mandate – which was modelled exactly on the individual mandate that Romney enacted in Massachusetts in 2006 – is a tax, then the penalty that Romney imposed when he was governor is also a tax.

If Romney agreed with his fellow Republicans, said David Axelrod, Obama’s senior campaign adviser, he would “condemn himself”.

“Many of us took solace in the fact that Obama would have to defend his tax record,” wrote the conservative blogger Ben Howe. “Despite the positive spin that the Romney camp is putting out, they seem to have destroyed the only glimmer of optimism we were able to pull out of that judicial tragedy.”

Mitch McConnell, the crusty old Senate minority leader from Kentucky, saw trouble coming over the tax label even before Fehrnstrom’s statement. “If the Obama mandate is a tax on the middle class, isn’t the Romney mandate a tax on the middle class?” Chris Wallace asked McConnell on Fox News. “Well, I think Governor Romney will have to speak for himself about what was done in Massachusetts,” McConnell replied.

It was McConnell who most enraged the hard right of the party when he told a small group at a hospital in Kentucky: “If you thought it was a good idea for the federal government to go in this direction [of the ACA], I’d say the odds are still on your side. Because it’s a lot harder to undo something than it is to stop it in the first place.”

So despite constant Republican pledges to “repeal and replace Obamacare”, despite House speaker John Boehner’s promise to “rip it out by its roots”, and yet another non-binding symbolic vote to repeal the ACA next week, the top Republican in the Senate was contemplating defeat.

“We are being played by a group of Republican leaders who have consistently been shown in the past few years to lack the testicular fortitude to do what’s right when it counts,” wrote Erick Erickson, the founder of the conservative Redstate.comwebsite.

“They are the John Robertses of Congress.”

It’s difficult to say whether the sound and fury on the Republican side signifies a last gasp or entrenched resistance. At least seven Republican governors have announced they will not expand Medicaid in their states, a key provision of Obamacare which the supreme court ruling made optional. Their non-participation could dramatically reduce the benefits of the law, but Democrats wager the governors will give in rather than forgo the surge of federal funding that compliance would bring.

The message from the White House is “enough already; let’s leave this behind”. There are signs Americans are listening. In a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 56 per cent of respondents said they want the law’s opponents to “stop their efforts to block the law and move on to other national problems”. Only 38 per cent said they want opponents to block implementation.

The Tea Party isn’t giving up though. They burned a copy of the 2,700 page ACA in a town called Hell, Michigan.

“Not only is Hell a good place to mail your taxes out of, but it’s also a good place to burn that Obamacare law,” Republican senator Joe Hune said as he lit the first match. Tea Partiers are expected to burn a few more copies in their Independence Day celebrations today.