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.
Third, this debate reveals that presidents and political parties should seek bipartisan support for major policy changes. Without Roberts’ vote we would not have seen the negative results of a major policy change supported by members of only one party in the Congress. All other major policy changes in American history, including those emanating from the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt through George W. Bush, came about with bipartisan votes in the Congress. As the old adage goes, “He who does not learn from history is condemned to repeat it.” President Obama and the Democratic Party have paid a high price for failing to learn this universal lesson from history.
Fourth, presidents must work closely with Congress in developing the details of their legislative proposals. President Obama followed a “fill-in-the-blank” approach, letting the Democratic leadership define the details of what became an unduly long and convoluted bill, which lacked coherence and cohesion. Simplicity, the hallmark of America’s major policy changes, stands in direct contrast to Obamacare. As former Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “We have to pass the bill before we know what’s in it.”
Finally, Roberts’ vote magnifies the importance of one vote, especially when on that vote may hang the prestige and independence of the Supreme Court. His vote enabled the Court to speak authoritatively without injuring its stature.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats praise the Chief Justice now: Republicans because they have never forgiven him for failing to lock arms with fellow conservatives on the Supreme Court, and Democrats because they have a more important task, overcoming the Obamacare debacle. Regardless, history has begun to shine a favorable light on Chief Justice Roberts.
And so it is that Chief Justice John Roberts is the unsung hero of Obamacare.
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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