Santorum at the Supreme Court: The Election Meets the Health-Care Fight

On the steps of the nation's highest court, he argued the Affordable Care Act was central to the election. Surprisingly, his rivals are doing the same.

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Reuters

As the Supreme Court heard its first oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act Monday, the atmosphere outside on the sidewalk was, if not quite circus-like, unpredictable and freewheeling. On a sunny but windy day, scores of activists on either side of the debate over President Obama's health-care overhaul chanted and waved flags and signs. A squadron of Republican state attorney generals discussed the finer points of Supreme Court case law, serving up a mind-numbing alphabet soup of AIA and ACA (that's the Anti-Injunction Act of 1867 and Affordable Care Act, for those following along at home) to reporters, passersby, and anyone else willing to listen. A few feet away, a man blew noisily away on a shofar. Earlier, there was a brass band.

The odd scene mirrored the national political debate over health-care reform, which has been similarly noisy and unpredictable. By all rights, it ought to be something the major candidates want to sweep under the rug: For President Obama, it's an unpopular albatross of a policy, with a sizable plurality of Americans disapproving of the law in a CBS/New York Times poll released Monday. For Mitt Romney, it's not much of an asset either, since -- as Democrats rarely miss an opportunity to point out -- he passed a similar law in Massachusetts. And yet with the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments on the law's constitutionality this week, Obama and his Republican rivals alike are pushing Obamacare back into the national spotlight.

"There's some great stuff in this law. The problem is no matter how good it is, or what you're trying to accomplish, you have to be in the Constitution."

The politics of the issue are a bit easier for Rick Santorum, who has made the existence of "Romneycare" central to the case for his nomination over GOP presidential primary front-runner Romney. And so it wasn't a total surprise to see the former Pennsylvania senator put in a brief appearance on the Supreme Court steps just after noon on Monday, where he quickly was surrounded by a crush of reporters but also was frequently drowned out by chants and counterchants. Backers of the law insisted, "The ACA is here to stay!" Opponents responding with "Rick! Rick! Rick!" and "Repeal the bill!" (Say it with a southern drawl and it almost rhymes.) During his brief remarks, Santorum spent less time sermonizing on the evils of the law itself and more on how only he, and not Romney, can fight against it in a general election.

"There's one candidate who's uniquely disqualified to make the case," Santorum said. "[Romney's] not here, he's not making the argument. He just says, 'I'll repeal Obamacare,' and in the same breath he defends Obamacare at the state level. It won't wash in the general election."

But while Romney and Obama may not have been present, they've both moved to make Obamacare a central issue in the last few days. On Friday, the Obama reelection team marked the law's second anniversary with a new push to reclaim the name "Obamacare" -- originally intended as a pejorative -- and turn the word into something positive. Top campaign advisers even emphasized the point on the Sunday shows. Though the sudden embrace generated lots of buzz, it's worth noting that The Road We've Traveled, the 17-minute Davis Guggenheim docu-advertisement released two weeks ago also celebrated "the Affordable Care Act" -- though not "Obamacare" -- as one of the president's major achievements. While the law's consistently bad polling shows Chicago still has a lot of work to do, the campaign hopes to awaken enthusiasm for it among in the Democratic base, for whom universal health care was a longstanding goal. It's a fine needle to thread.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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