The President needs to energise his liberal base. But picking a fight with the Supreme Court is not the way to do itby Emily Bazelon / April 25, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, DC. Photo: afagen
Last month, the Supreme Court spent three long days weighing the constitutionality of President Obama’s 2010 health care law. It’s the biggest case of the year, with real implications for the 2012 presidential election. For those who missed the brouhaha, the central question is whether Congress has the power to enact reforms that force all Americans to buy private health insurance. This could just be a new wrinkle in the legal compact that has allowed Social Security and Medicare to stand for decades. Or, as the law’s challengers would have it, it could be an alarming and “unprecedented” flexing of federal muscle. Also up for debate was how much of the 2,700 page law would fall if the court were to strike down the insurance mandate—all of it, or just a couple of interlocking pieces? In the wake of the Supreme Court arguments, a few observers have tried to spin legal dross into electoral gold. Conceding that a majority of the justices signaled grave to middling doubts about the constitutionality of the Act, optimistic democrats have nonetheless argued that it will actually be good for the president’s re-election chances if the court strikes down the law when they deliver their verdict in June. In that case, so the argument goes, Obama can energise his base by portraying the justices as a bunch of unelected robed radicals. “There’s nothing better to me than [the court] overturning this thing 5 to 4,” said James Carville, a Democrat strategist and adviser to former President Bill Clinton. “That is not spin.”
Maybe not, but it’s a fantasy. The central dilemma for any Democrat running for president is that the liberal base is not big enough to carry the election. This is partly the result of America’s electoral system, which allows a dozen or so swing states to determine the outcome. But the relatively small size of the liberal base is also a national phenomenon. In 2011, 21 per cent of Americans called themselves liberal, 35 per cent considered themselves moderate, and 40 per cent saw themselves as conservatives. Sure Obama needs to energise his base. But if that’s all he’s got, he’s toast.