Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court's historic debate over the constitutionality of President Obama's unpopular health care law is all about economic freedom.

That freedom has been battered, bullied and beaten by the government over many decades in countless laws and restrictions, and it will be further eroded by this ill-advised health care law now before the high court.

At stake in the court's review is whether an all-powerful federal government can compel Americans to buy a health care plan they neither want, need nor can afford.

That's what the law's "mandate" would do, and anyone outside its religious exemptions who refuses to purchase health insurance will be punished. The federal attorneys in Monday's first round of oral arguments alternately called the punishment a penalty or a tax -- though whatever they may call it, it's clearly a punitive fine meant to punish, to force Americans to buy a commercial product against their will, to submit to the government's awesome power.

All of this will be done under the U.S. Constitution's "commerce clause," which gives the feds the authority to regulate interstate commerce.

But 26 states and millions of Americans think the feds have gone too far and want the law's mandate struck down by the highest court in the land.

What's at stake here from the government's viewpoint is the financial structure of the health care law, which will come crashing down like a house of cards if its central mandate is found to be unconstitutional.

The overhaul was sold to the health care and insurance industries with the promise that just about everyone would be buying into it. Millions of Americans and businesses who do not have health insurance will buy policies, and that will provide the funding to make universal coverage affordable, or so goes the theory.

Take away the forced mandate, and you can kiss those potential customers goodbye -- and with them the additional business the health care industry needs to pay for the other insurance coverage mandates the Democrats in Congress stuffed into this law.

Obama and his party rammed this program through Congress despite opposition from ordinary Americans, struggling small businesses and the states, which will bear the brunt of higher Medicaid costs.

Obama had expected that the health care law would be a major political winner for him and the Democrats, but it has proved to be a big disappointment. They lost the House and much of the Senate in 2010 and are facing daunting challenges in 2012. If anything, Obamacare has become even more unpopular.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.