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The Brass Tacks Calculation for Romney

Mitt Romney finds himself in a somewhat awkward position. According to his conservative base, the Affordable Care Act is not just an assault on the constitution, but on the natural order of the universe. Yet a chief justice with solid conservative credentials has just affirmed this legal abomination. Going forward, the battle over the law’s basic legitimacy is not one Romney is likely to win in the only court he can appeal to—that being public opinion. 

So what’s the de facto GOP nominee to do? It sounds from Romney’s remarks like he’s mostly done fighting the health care battle on its own terms. Instead, he’ll largely cite the law as evidence of Obama’s economic mismanagement. Romney’s overall brief against Obama is that he’s expanded government, blown a hole in the deficit, created job-killing regulations, and generally depressed businesspeople about the country’s economic climate. To the extent he talks about health care going forward, it’s likely to be in that context. Romney will claim Obamacare proves the president fundamentally misunderstands private enterprise, a favorite theme of his on the stump. We’ll hear Romney cite his favorite poll number—that three-quarters of businesses say the ACA makes them less likely to hire—over and over again. 

What does that mean politically? I think it comes at some cost to Romney, since it’s more compelling to denounce a law as both illegitimate and counterproductive rather than just the latter. But it’s still better for him than the alternative. (The best-case scenario would have been no ruling of any kind.) Had the decision gone the other way, Republicans would have come under pressure to put some meat on the “replace” portion of their “repeal and replace” mantra, when of course there’s no meat to be had. You might have even seen some business types—many of whom believe the status quo was a disaster even if they didn’t love the ACA—complain that doing nothing isn’t an option. (Though many more would have surely kept quiet for partisan reasons.) Suffice it to say, this would not have been helpful to Romney. Far better to keep the focus on the sins of Obamacare and any discussion of a GOP alternative highly theoretical. And today’s ruling more or less preserves that strategy. 

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber