Last Week's Supreme Court Rulings Are an Opportunity for Republicans

How Republicans can move past issues that are dangerous to their party.
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How Republicans can move past issues that are dangerous to their party.
(Photo: Phil Roeder/Flickr)

(Photo: Phil Roeder/Flickr)

If you're a Republican, particularly a Republican politician, you were probably none too pleased by the Supreme Court's actions late last week. The rulings upholding the subsidies in the Affordable Care Act and declaring same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states were not what most conservatives wanted to hear. But these rulings actually come at a good time for the Republican Party, allowing it to cast aside previous stances that would likely prove damaging in the next general election.

The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has begun to look like a particular albatross for Republicans. No, it's never been particularly popular or much of a help to Democrats politically, either. But Republican activists have grown increasingly strident in demanding its immediate demise. Just as no Democrat could have been nominated for president in 2008 without advocating for health care reform, it's increasingly looking like no Republican can be nominated in 2016 without advocating for its repeal. This is a problem because actually repealing the ACA is logistically impossible and politically suicidal. For a Republican president to take away millions of people's access to health care would be a nightmare scenario for that party, but it's just the sort of thing the next GOP president could be pressured into doing.

This is where the Court's ruling in King v. Burwell presents an opportunity. While many Republican candidates will continue to urge for ACA's repeal, some can now say, "Look, we've tried every avenue multiple times, and it's not going to happen." As Jonathan Bernstein notes, the ruling allows health care to become a normal political issue, with the out party critiquing the way the party in power is doing it. Candidates now have some freedom to pivot away from immediate repeal and toward the idea that they will make health care work better and more in line with their party's principles.

Same-sex marriage is an even more dangerous issue for Republicans. Yes, it's been just a decade since Republican candidates demagogued about the threat of gay marriage and used it to win elections, but public opinion has quickly shifted on this. By ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court actually aligned itself with public opinion. The issue that was splitting the Democratic coalition a decade ago is now splitting the Republican one.

To be sure, most vocal Republican activists are still very much against the expanded view of marriage articulated by the Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, and a number of Republican presidential candidates (Santorum, Huckabee, etc.) have already issued condemnations of the ruling. But most of the candidates' responses are far more nuanced, basically disagreeing with the ruling but saying that same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, and we still need to respect religious liberties. Some examples:

  • Marco Rubio: "While I disagree with this decision, we live in a republic and must abide by the law."
  • Jeb Bush: "In a country as diverse as ours, good people who have opposing views should be able to live side by side. It is now crucial that as a country we protect religious freedom and the right of conscience and also not discriminate."
  • Lindsey Graham: "While we have differences, it is time for us to move forward together respectfully and as one people."

In other words, let's please talk about something else now.

Questions about these rulings will undoubtedly come up in the early Republican debates, the first of which is just over a month away. This will be a great opportunity for someone like Ted Cruz to play to the crowd by demanding the immediate repeal of Obamacare or for Donald Trump to promise to build a better, taller Supreme Court and make Mexico pay for it. It will also be a great opportunity for one of the more likely nominees to sound like the adult in the room and talk about the need to move forward and not fight the same old losing battles of the past.

That candidate will not necessarily win over the crowd at the debate. (Remember the bloodthirsty debate audiences in 2011 who booed gay soldiers and cheered for executions and the deaths of the uninsured?) But he'll likely get some positive press for those comments and will help make the 2016 election turn on issues that are less damaging to the Republican Party.

The Court may not have given these candidates the policies they wanted. But it did give them cover to change the subject.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.