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ObamaCare is alive. And now we have us an election.
Politically, here's what the Supreme Court provided in upholding the president's health legislation: clarity. Ever since the March oral arguments, with their tantalizing hints the court might strike down the law, the politics of health care has been a muddle.
With this week's decision, the debate refocuses. This election is now about ObamaCare—not just in its own right, but as proxy for a generational debate over liberty. Chief Justice John Roberts, in legitimizing sweeping federal powers, has left it to the U.S. electorate to serve as the check on government intrusion—and thus dramatically elevated the November stakes. That is no political victory for President Obama, though it could be an electoral game changer for Mitt Romney if he recognizes the potential.
The ObamaCare case was never going to be a political win for the White House. Yes, in upholding the law the court has saved Mr. Obama from the humiliation of having his signature domestic law found unconstitutional. The administration is saved from selling the public on a second attempt at legislation.
Then again, Mr. Obama is exactly where he was in early March, and that is nowhere good. No finding of constitutionality changes the fact that a significant majority of the public resents the health law's mandates, its costs, its rationing, its taxes. The president has been largely mum on his "achievement," not just because it is politically toxic, but because it is a continual reminder that his first years were wasted on this health-care hubris while the economy slipped further into the malaise that dominates it today.
The court ruling doesn't change this dynamic, as Mr. Obama proved in his statement on Thursday. He stuck to the usual feel-good promises that his law will help sick kids and the elderly. He only obliquely referred to his controversial "individual mandate"—the heart of the court case—and even this required him to offer the patronizing argument that he'd done what was "good for the country" in making everyone buy health insurance. He ran from the court's central finding: that the mandate is in fact a big tax, primarily on lower-income and middle-class Americans. And he closed with a near-desperate plea that nobody talk about the issue any more, ever.
All this was a guide to how Mr. Romney might use this ruling to aid his own political fortunes. The first opportunity, which the GOP nominee seems to have grasped, was the gift of urgency and focus that the decision bestowed. "Our mission is clear," said Mr. Romney, in his immediate reaction. "If we want to get rid of ObamaCare, we're going to have to replace President Obama." Few elections offer so clear a choice, or such a big motivator for voter turnout.
The Republican National Committee was quick to buttress this message, quickly going up with a new website, "The People v. ObamaCare," that shows a Web ad with the opening line: "The final verdict on the Obama health care law is now in your hands." Within an hour, the site had raised an astonishing $200,000. If Mr. Romney can continue to harness this fury, a rejuvenated tea party and grass-roots get-out-the-vote effort could make all the difference for him in November.
What Mr. Romney missed in his remarks was the opening that the decision gives him to elevate ObamaCare into a far larger, more powerful debate. The former governor is adept at citing the laundry list of ObamaCare ills, and on Thursday he did so again, including a vague reference to the law's many "taxes." Yet the significance of the Roberts ruling was in fact the finding of a specific new and frightening taxation power—the government right to levy a tax on any American behavior it deems inappropriate.
That is enormous. The Roberts majority didn't just legitimize ObamaCare—it provided Democrats a road map, and the tools, for the party's ambitions to turn us into a European-style entitlement state. Mr. Romney's challenge is to explain that ObamaCare is only the beginning. This new court-granted power is Mr. Romney's most powerful warning regarding a second Obama term.
It's also an opening to make his own appeal. If the court will not stop government, then only the American people can—by electing a president and a Congress that promise respect for American liberties. The more Mr. Romney can articulate his own limiting principles for governance, the more voters will appreciate the contrast with today's president.
This election is now about ObamaCare. Which is, in turn, about everything else.