Big Legal Win for President, Big Political Win for Republicans

Stuart Rothenberg June 28, 2012 · 12:23 PM EDT

Moments after the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the constitutionality of the health care law, observers were already assessing its political implications for the November elections.

The decision “amounts to a massive political win for the incumbent,” wrote Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post.

“The decision will certainly be a plus for President Barack Obama’s re-election because it allows the president’s signature achievement to stand,” agrees Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown, a former veteran political reporter with Scripps-Howard.

Both Chris and Peter understand politics, but I think that in this case they both got it wrong.

For the White House, the Court’s decision certainly is a relief. Obviously, the law is the Administration’s crowning achievement, and the president and his allies see it both as an important accomplishment and as taking the country down the right public policy road. Having the law overturned would have created a big problem for the Administration.

But the law remains unpopular, so the administration’s “crowning achievement,” purely from a political point of view, is not an unadulterated success. Of course, the president can now try to use the Court’s decision to boost popular support for the law, but after all these months, he may not be able to change opinion very much.

But the way the court – or, Justice Roberts – justified upholding the law, by calling it a tax, has a substantial downside for the White House and for Democrats who supported it.

Had the Court thrown out the law, Republicans would have had to scramble to figure out what to offer as a replacement. Democrats could have raised the specter of people being denied insurance for pre-existing conditions and young adults being thrown off their parents’ policies.

Now, Republicans can attack the law not only for being “big government” but for being a huge tax during in weak economy, adding burdens to middle class taxpayers and slowing economic growth. And the GOP doesn’t have to come up with a detailed plan to “replace” Obama’s health care plan.

“Since politics is the ultimate zero-sum game,” writes Quinnipiac’s Brown,” what’s good for Obama is bad for Romney.”

Well, maybe, but in this case there are two issues – the legal and the political.

The Court’s decision doesn’t undercut Romney’s opposition to the law. Instead, it gives him more political ammunition: taxes.

So in the end, the Court’s ruling is something of a split decision: A big legal win for President Obama that enhances the Republicans’ political position heading to November.