By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The conventional wisdom is that it would be a political disaster for Democratic President Barack Obama, and a boon for Republicans, if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down all or most of Obama's healthcare overhaul.
That could be: The healthcare law - which among other things would require most Americans to buy health insurance - is Obama's signature achievement in domestic policy, and the number-one target of many Republicans in this year's elections.
However, that doesn't necessarily mean a loss before the Supreme Court would cripple Obama's re-election argument in November.
In fact, some political analysts believe that if the court strikes down the law, it would make it easier for Obama to cast Republicans in Washington -- including conservatives in the Supreme Court -- as obstructionists who have worked against the interests of middle- and low-income Americans.
Several parts of the healthcare plan are very popular, including a measure barring insurance companies from refusing to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions or charging far more for coverage of those who are sick.
Democratic political consultant James Carville said that if the court were to strike down the law, "the Republican Party will own the healthcare system for the foreseeable future."
"Go see (conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin) Scalia when you want healthcare," he told CNN.
A ruling against "Obamacare", as opponents have dubbed the law, could also take much of the steam out of an issue that has been a rallying cry for Republicans seeking to take over the White House and Senate, and keep control of the House of Representatives, in the November 6 elections.
Republicans' portrayals of the 2010 healthcare law as a step toward socialism and a dangerous intrusion by the government into Americans' daily lives have helped inspire conservatives, including those in the small-government Tea Party movement.
Without "Obamacare" to rally them into action, it is unclear whether some conservatives would remain as passionate about the 2012 elections, analysts say.
"If this whole thing gets overturned, they could certainly lose some momentum," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, adding that Republicans would need to come up with an alternative, free-market healthcare plan to avoid losing the interest of some Tea Party conservatives.
"If it gets overturned, (Republicans) are in for a knock-down, drag-out fight" in the November elections, "because ... it is going to fire up progressives," O'Connell said.
A ruling by the nine-member court isn't expected until late June. Justices from the court's five-member conservative wing sharply questioned parts of the healthcare law in hearings this week, but questions in court do not always reveal how a justice will vote.
MAKING THE COURT THE ISSUE
Obama is already running for re-election in part against a Republican-led House of Representatives that he contends has tried to stifle his plans -- from healthcare to job-creation efforts -- for political reasons.
Making a political issue out of a Supreme Court ruling would be risky, but Obama has done it before.
During his 2010 State of the Union speech, the president criticized a ruling by the conservative-led court that banned limits on political fund-raising and spending by corporations, unions and other groups.
The court ruling led to the creation of "Super PACs," the political action committees that have flooded the presidential campaign with nearly $100 million in spending on ads, most of which have attacked candidates.
The PACs have allowed a few wealthy donors to shape the campaign; the ruling has been viewed as largely benefiting Republican candidates and their corporate supporters.
In the healthcare dispute, a Supreme Court ruling against the White House along ideological lines would allow Democrats to argue that the court's five conservative justices were acting out of partisanship as much as the law.
"If the Supreme Court goes against, Democrats will be primed to run against the Supreme Court," said David Kendall, an analyst with the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.
"This would be seen (by Democrats) as judicial activism," Kendall said, much as Democrats saw the court's ruling in Bush v. Gore, which stopped a recount of votes in Florida and handed the 2000 presidential election to Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore, who had won the popular vote nationwide.
In such a scenario, Obama and Democrats would rely on the idea that most Americans support an overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system -- even if they do not like the law Obama signed in 2010.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week found that although just 44 percent of Americans favor the healthcare law, an additional 21 percent favor changing the healthcare system but believe the law did not go far enough.
GOOD NEWS FOR ROMNEY?
Although a court decision against the healthcare law could rob Republicans of an avenue of attack against Obama and other Democrats, it would represent a landmark victory in the courts.
It could also be particularly good news for Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has been under fire from conservatives because he signed a healthcare overhaul bill in Massachusetts in 2006. The Obama administration says that law was used as a model for its healthcare plan.
A Supreme Court ruling against Obama's plan would do Romney "a marvelous service by saying, 'You don't have to talk about this anymore,'" said James Morone, an expert on politics and healthcare at Brown University.
Such a ruling would, however, increase pressure on Republicans to better define their own healthcare agenda.
Republicans, including Romney, back programs to largely privatize Medicare, the popular government healthcare insurance program for older Americans, by providing vouchers to shop for commercial insurance.
Democratic candidates for Congress are vowing to defend Medicare against what they call Republican efforts to kill it.
If the Supreme Court finds the healthcare law constitutional, it would be a huge victory for Obama.
But the downside for Obama and Democrats running for Congress would be that it would likely re-ignite conservatives' anger over the law, and give them more incentive to vote in November.
"It will re-energize the Republicans" if most of the law is upheld, said Mark McClellan, director of the healthcare program at the Brookings Institution.
"Healthcare has come to symbolize a lot more than healthcare in this election."
(Editing by David Lindsey and David Brunnstrom)
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