Healthcare ruling is good for democracy

Mark Mardell
North America editor
@BBCMarkMardellon Twitter

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold the healthcare reform law

There was not much calm before the storm. Political Washington has been living on its nerves for weeks and the crowds outside the Supreme Court today were jittery, in a good-natured way.

As the clock ticked down to 10:00 both sides of Washington's 1st Street NE were packed with supporters and opponents of President Barack Obama's healthcare law. They were waving banners, erupting in occasional chants.

As one side yelled: "Healthcare for all," there was an answering cheeky chorus of "we're broke".

It was so busy that there was no phone coverage, a sobering experience for those, like me, who frantically check Twitter, the superb Scotusblog and emails.

'Sigh of relief'

The first indication of the ruling was a scream of delight from a group carrying pink placards, declaring: "Women for healthcare".

media captionObama: "A victory for people all over this country"

To the surprise of many, and against the expectation of a lot of commentators, the Supreme Court had ruled that the Affordable Care Act - "Obamacare" to its detractors - was constitutional.

While supporters of the law danced in a small, celebratory circle, opponents took to the microphone venting their fury.

They warned this was the end of the republic, that socialism was heading to the US, and speaker after speaker said the court had proved that President Obama had lied (by saying the "individual mandate" was not a tax).

Inside the White House there must have been a gust of air as everyone from the president down breathed a huge sigh of relief.

This ruling means President Obama avoids a humiliating shellacking and does not have to make a near impossible decision about how to replace an eviscerated law.

He could wipe his brow and make a speech about how this was not about politics but about the American people.

It was not one of his best: slightly hectoring, with rather a lot of numbers. He did not, for once, use the word "choice" or talk about the election.

A good betrayal

Mitt Romney did. This is good news for the president in the sense that the alternative would have been much worse.

That does not mean it is bad news for Republicans. Far from it. Mr Romney made a short and effective speech making the central point that the only way to get rid of the law was to elect him.

He has been handed a cause.

media captionRomney blasts healthcare ruling

Remember that it was fiery opposition to President Obama's healthcare plans from individuals at town hall meetings that propelled the Tea Party to national prominence and helped make it into a movement with huge political clout.

So there is no doubt this really fires up the base, They love a good betrayal and can now add the conservative chief justice to their little list.

But that is not all. Poll after poll shows a majority of Americans want the law repealed. And some surveys show that feeling is strong among independents.

It is now clear the only way it will be repealed is at the ballot box, by putting Mr Romney in the White House.

If it is true that his promise appeals strongly to swing voters then Thursday's ruling gives them a big reason to vote for him.

This is good for democracy.

Although it is the Supreme Court's job to make far-reaching decisions, it would have left a slightly sour taste in some mouths if judges, not the people, had decided the fate of this important legislation.

Now, as Mr Romney said, people have a choice.

This election really is about two very different visions of America, and there could be no more appropriate issue to fight over than healthcare, where arguments about the size and role of government and the duty of citizens and care for the vulnerable clash head-on.

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