The early-going of the 2016 presidential campaign has been heavy on personality and light on policy. Thanks to the Supreme Court, that’s about to change.
If the five conservatives on the high court decide to invalidate the federal subsidies in Obamacare and throw both the healthcare system and Congress into a state of chaos, the candidates will face their first real-time policy test. That decision could come as early as Monday and is expected sometime before the end of the month.
Whether the government wins or loses in King v. Burwell, presidential contenders will likely have to ditch their platitudes when it comes to healthcare. “Repeal it” won’t suffice—either the law stays intact, and Republican candidates must begin to lay out their replacement plans, or millions of Americans could find themselves unable to afford insurance, necessitating an urgent response. “It’s obviously going to be a big foray into policy for these candidates,” said Doug Heye, a GOP consultant unaffiliated with any campaign.
In many ways, the political implications of the ruling are the reverse of the preferences for each party’s candidates. Democrats—including Hillary Clinton—are banking on the Court to preserve, for a second time, the most far-reaching piece of President Obama’s domestic legacy. Tossing the subsidies would cause the cost of insurance to skyrocket for millions of people, potentially unraveling the coverage expansion that was central to the Affordable Care Act. Unraveling the law is exactly what Republicans have been hoping for, at least in policy terms, but the immediate effect of knocking out the subsidies would expose, again, the GOP’s deep divisions on healthcare policy. Unlike the 2012 challenge against Obamacare, King v. Burwell doesn’t involve a major constitutional question—whatever havoc the Court wreaks will be up to the GOP-led Congress to fix.