In perhaps the most highly anticipated decision of the Obama administration, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 today to uphold the individual mandate as constitutional. Justice Roberts, who sided with the liberals to tip the balance, voted to uphold the measure not under the Commerce Clause, as the Solicitor General had argued before the Court, but under the power of Congress to “lay and collect taxes.” The ruling surmises that the individual mandate amounts to nothing more than a tax charge levied on those free-riders who choose not to buy insurance and might otherwise end up sticking the rest of us with the bill.
How easy was that? No more arguments about the limits of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause or the merits of forcing broccoli on Americans. So why didn’t the Obama Administration make the free-rider tax argument all along? Because to do that would be to admit that the President had proposed a new tax on Americans, even if only on the most irresponsible scofflaws among its ranks.
In a desperate attempt to salvage their political win, the minority argued in their dissenting opinion that even though the effect of the mandate is that of taxation, it cannot be upheld under that jurisdiction because the framers of the law used the “wrong label.” Just when you thought that conservative logic couldn’t get more twisted, these judges “reasoned” that if the concerted anti-tax campaign was successful enough to force legislators to swap the word tax in order to sell a proposal, then they can’t then have the protections associated with taxes. It’s almost the legal equivalent to "you snooze, you lose!"
Confused? You’re not alone, since confusion is an intended effect of the linguistic gymnastics key to the right-wing’s win-at-all-costs game plan. But at least we can thank Chief Justice Roberts and the other four justices for striking a blow today for cognitive coherence. The Court affirmed by a razor-thin margin that a rose by any other name remains, constitutionally, a rose.
This comes as a blow to conservatives who, for years, have understood the power of language to shape reality. A nostalgic walk down memory lane of the healthcare reform fight is littered with catchy opposition phrases completely devoid of truth. Who can forget the summer of 2009 when town halls were filled with citizens terrified that Obama-appointed death panels would be administering their care if the bill passed? Anyone still have their “Obama lies, Granny dies” bumper sticker? Someone might want to tell Granny that it’s safe to come out of the basement now.
And how about that mandate that’s at the center of the frothing Tea Party rage? This “radical” initiative was introduced in 1993 by Republican Senator John Chaffey of Rhode Island as a means to undercut the employer mandate central to Hillary Clinton’s infamous health care proposal. Shifting the burden of responsibility from business to individuals proved to be such a popular conservative position that Mitt Romney made it the centerpiece of his Massachusetts healthcare reform bill. Rationally, Democrats assumed that Republicans would never attack their own idea. However, ever attuned to the power of language, Republicans made the "mandate" sound even scarier than a small tax applied to a few bad seeds.