Republicans stood in a long line to excoriate Chief Justice John Roberts for voting to uphold Obamacare in 2012, while Democrats praised him. Today, both parties should thank him for being a “Profile in Courage.”
Looking back over the past 18 months, the chief justice handed Republicans both a big defeat and an even larger gift. Had Roberts voted with his four fellow conservatives to declare Obamacare unconstitutional, he would have handed Democrats a political sledgehammer to crush Republicans as being callous and unsympathetic to the poor and to condemn the Supreme Court for judicial activism. Of course, Republicans argue that had Roberts voted with his fellow conservatives, he would have spared America the acrimony and agony of today’s grueling and disruptive debate, but that misses the point.
Voting with the conservatives and against the liberals would have been the easy way out for Roberts. But, by voting with the liberals he denied Democrats the political issue in 2012 and, as it turns out, gave Republicans the defining issue of 2014. Whether by design or by default, Roberts’ vote gave Democrats a victory in the short term, but a real possibility of defeat in the long run.
Democrats now find themselves behind the political “8 ball,” trying to defend the unraveling of the president’s signature policy. Roberts’ counter-intuitive vote set the stage for a healthy and lengthy national debate about the size and scope of government and about how politicians should approach making major policy changes. In short, he took the long view of history from which several vital lessons emerge.
First, despite the vicious vendettas in this debate, it showcases democracy at work, engaging Americans at all levels of society, both for and against Obamacare. Had Roberts voted to declare Obamacare unconstitutional, he would have denied Americans this opportunity to debate such great Constitutional issues as the power of government versus the power of the people and the power of the national government versus the powers of the states.
Second, at a time when popular trust in government has precipitously declined, this debate has given the public a sense of empowerment that they can make a difference in the courtroom and at the ballot box. A bill that passed overwhelmingly in both houses of Congress now finds itself with its back to the wall as Republicans gather momentum for the 2014 Congressional races and many court cases challenge the constitutionality of Obamacare. Democrats, in the driver’s seat two years ago when Roberts ruled in favor of Obamacare, now face the possibility of losing control of the Senate and of ceding to Republicans an overwhelming majority in the House.
A leading scholar in the intersection of faith and politics in the United States, Charles Dunn was named Dean of the Robertson School of Government in August 2004.
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