Opinion

Will Republicans suffer politically if the Supreme Court strikes down ObamaCare? Don't count on it.

Political science shows that voters are not very good at assigning blame for policy disasters

Next month, the Supreme Court might rule in King v. Burwell that the Affordable Care Act does not make subsidies available on insurance exchanges established by the federal government. In a rational world, this argument would be laughed out of court, as even former Republican politicians and congressional staffers have suggested. But that's not the world we live in.

So it's worth considering the political fallout if the Supreme Court's Republican nominees throw the U.S.'s health care market into chaos. The short answer is that, with some notable exceptions, Republicans could very well get away with it.

The policy consequences of such a ruling are much clearer: It would be a disaster. Without subsidies, the vast majority of people would not be able to afford insurance, and therefore would not be subject to the mandate to carry insurance. As a result, younger and healthier people would drop out of the insurance market, creating an actuarial death spiral in which more and more expensive policies are offered to fewer and fewer customers — until the exchanges collapse. Millions of people stand to lose their insurance as a result.

This, of course, is why Congress did make subsidies available on the federally established exchanges. It certainly didn't go to the trouble of creating a federal backstop that was designed to fail. And until a few libertarian fanatics willfully misread the law as a Hail Mary in their legal war on the ACA, nobody on either side of the aisle involved in the bill thought otherwise.

Should Republicans be careful what they wish for? Possibly. "Fear of change has been the right's most powerful weapon in the health-care wars since they began under Harry Truman," writes New York's Jonathan Chait. "Seeing their weapon turned against them is a frightening sensation, one they are likely to experience many times again." The GOP "might be better off if the court just left the law as is," agrees The Washington Post's Greg Sargent. Even The Wall Street Journal editorial page is worried.

The idea that destroying ObamaCare would be politically counterproductive is superficially plausible. Any such decision would be a 5-4 opinion with only Republican-nominated judges in the majority, over at least one lengthy dissent. The Republican-controlled Congress could restore the subsidies by passing a one-paragraph bill, as President Obama will surely emphasize repeatedly.

Congress could try to pass the buck to Obama by passing a "fix" loaded with poison pills that the president would have to veto, but I agree with Chait and Sargent that the Republican conference is too dysfunctional to pull this off. And when Congress fails to act, overwhelmingly Republican-controlled statehouses could solve the problem by establishing their own exchanges — could, but in most cases won't.

So a Republican Supreme Court takes health insurance away from millions of people, and Republican-controlled governments fail to take simple steps to solve the problem. That has to be a political disaster for the GOP, right?

Not necessarily. "If the Obama Administration loses in the Supreme Court," argues New Yorker legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, "the political pain will fall almost exclusively on the president and his party." And counterintuitive as it might seem, political science favors Toobin.

The problem is that a separation-of-powers system dilutes accountability, and voters generally lack the information that will allow them to sort out the blame for a given disaster. Presidents generally get both more credit and more blame for what happens under their watch than is justified by their power.

This is reflected in the fact that the ACA — a statute that required immense congressional skill on the part of Democrats to pass — is commonly known as ObamaCare. To voters who aren't Democratic partisans, Republican assertions that Obama is at fault for any bad outcomes that arise from ObamaCare will carry a lot of weight. The media, which tends to give credence to even hare-brained Republican notions out of a misguided effort to remain balanced, is unlikely to make it much clearer.

It may also seem as if Republicans would take the rap for a decision written by a bare majority of Republican-nominated justices, but this overlooks how little the public knows about the Supreme Court. Only a little more than a quarter of the public can name the chief justice. The vast majority of voters will have no idea whether the decision was 5-4 or unanimous, let alone the partisan details of the split. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg might write her greatest dissent, but it's hard to imagine it changing many minds, given that only a tiny minority reads Supreme Court opinions and almost all of them know what they think about the case beforehand.

So in general, I do think Toobin is right. Republicans in Congress and in deep red states can probably avoid any consequences. But there is one twist. Republicans are most vulnerable in states with federally established exchanges that are led by the GOP, but tend to swing to the Democrats in presidential elections. Voters in those states are more likely to blame Republicans for not establishing a state exchange.

As it happens, one such state is Wisconsin, whose governor is a frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2016. The Republican primary electorate will prevent Scott Walker from signing a bill establishing a state exchange, but his refusal will make it harder for the GOP to duck the issue. In this instance, it might be harder for Republicans to deflect responsibility to Obama than it would be otherwise.

Ultimately, the political consequences of a Supreme Court ruling against the government are difficult to predict. But what we know for sure is that it would be best for the Supreme Court to uphold ObamaCare — so we don't have to find out.

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