On Thursday the Supreme Court issued its decision in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, which determined the fate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), commonly dubbed Obamacare. Signed by President Barack Obama in March 2010, the SCOTUS decision, which maintains the constitutionality of Obama’s signature legislative achievement, is its most significant decision since Bush v. Gore (2000).
Yet even as Obama and his liberal allies relish the victory and attempt to move forward with the reelection effort, the SCOTUS decision will inevitably foment a not-inconsiderable insurgency among the same circles the passage of Obamacare initially inspired. The Court’s treatment of the penalty for failing to purchase health insurance (effective 2014) as a tax – an unexpected departure from the government’s initial arguments – represents what many experts consider a “plan B” for the GOP now that the furor over the mandate is essentially negligible. Considering taxation in any and all of its forms is a historical target of conservative criticism, Republicans will have no difficulty castigating both the new tax and the activist court that interpreted the penalty as such.
Romney will certainly seize on the alleged tax hike while also attacking it from every other conceivable angle: Obama’s breaking of campaign promises and the PPACA’s supposed economy-stalling effect, to name a few. But the loudest voice condemning the ruling will undoubtedly be the Tea Party, unexpectedly granted a second life with the SCOTUS decision.
The Tea Party emerged in large part as a negative reaction to Obamacare and not necessarily as a consequence of the Great Recession, as the standard GOP narrative suggests. It was widespread Tea Party fury over Obamacare that enabled the massive Republican congressional midterm victories in 2010, even if most of these victories did not feature Tea Party candidates. Indeed, contrary to popular thought, overall Tea Party members have not been strong candidates for the GOP. This year, the Tea Party has largely failed in its attempts to unseat establishment Republicans in various primaries: Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) staved off challenger Dan Liljenquist and no sitting Republicans from Texas were defeated outright. The one notable Tea Party victory came in Indiana, with state treasurer Richard Mourdock defeating veteran Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar.
But while the Tea Party has been unsuccessful at actually achieving elected office, pushing their brand – vocally, stridently, even radically – has always been a strength. The Tea Party now finds itself with a fresh target for its vitriol. This will serve as a boon to the far-right GOP subgroup because, although it is perhaps the most unpopular group in America, behind such oft-maligned groups as Mormons, Muslims, and atheists, it is uniquely successful at generating grassroots support and will now have a new rallying point for members old and new.
Obama may celebrate now, but today’s ruling may have created the Tea Party 2.0.