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Political Landscape to Stay Largely Unchanged After Decision

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Long after the glut of money from activists thrilled or horrified with Thursday’s Supreme Court decision stops pouring into political coffers and the cable TV talking heads have screamed themselves hoarse, the American political landscape will remain mostly the same.

Republican strategists eyeing House and Senate races were pleased with Thursday’s ruling from a political standpoint, saying it helps recrystallize a winning issue for them. Democratic operatives said the court’s decision gives them an opportunity to remind voters about the positive aspects of the law and deflates conservative attacks that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional.

But in many ways, the 5-4 ruling set a familiar political playing field for November.

“Because it was upheld, I don’t think it changes the dynamics and the political narrative of the campaigns, whether they are Democrats or Republicans,” Democratic pollster John Anzalone said, echoing the opinion of other Democrats. “Now everything is the same. I think the one thing it does, it helps Americans have the final say in it, and that’s good.”

GOP strategist Brad Todd explained that the ruling allowed Republican candidates to distill a message about Obamacare even more succinctly.

“It’s a very simple election,” he said. “If you want to remove the threat to our economy and our debt crisis, you have to elect Republican government to repeal this law.”

Todd added: “If any Republican candidates are out there talking about anything besides the economy and Obamacare, they need to be swatted upside the head.”

Rick Wiley, the Republican National Committee’s political director, pushed a similar narrative in a memo that said it is a bad law that Americans don’t want. “The only way for voters to end it and pursue true reform is to vote Republican in November,” he wrote.

But even Republican operatives conceded that there appear to be some short-term gains for Democrats with this decision. The heavy media coverage will help remind voters of all the provisions of the law they like.

“Insurance companies can’t again deny coverage to people with asthma, cancer or heart disease, or block women from getting cancer screenings,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) said in a statement, hammering home the point.

But the short-term positives of this ruling for Democrats are likely to fade as the health-care-themed attack ads begin to cycle onto TV in heavy rotation. And the attacks will have a familiar ring.

Republicans “get to pound the message into seniors that the government is going to take away $500 billion from Medicare to pay for Barack Obama’s new health care scheme and you will no longer get to have access to your doctor,” Florida-based GOP consultant Rick Wilson said. “And it’s going to cause a world of hurt for this president” and his party.

Democrats said that depending on the race, they will have a proper response for those well-worn attacks, whether it’s emphasizing the positive and popular aspects of the law, criticizing Republicans for wanting to take them away or pivoting to attack the GOP for favoring the Medicare-changing budget of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.).

The ruling “doesn’t change the fundamental reality that Republican incumbents are on defense over their votes now, particularly on the GOP budget and what it does to Medicare,” said one Democratic campaign operative in Washington, D.C.

But the ruling did provide an instant fundraising injection for both parties, who began sending missives almost immediately. Presumptive GOP White House nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign reported raising more than $2.5 million in response to the ruling as of late Thursday afternoon.

Meanwhile, the high court’s decision seemed to solidify a Democratic acceptance of the once-pejorative term “Obamacare.”

In a fundraising email to supporters from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday, a graphic next to her message said “STAND UP FOR OBAMACARE.”

That comes three months after David Axelrod, a senior aide to Obama, sent out an email to supporters with the subject line, “Hell yeah, I like Obamacare.”

Yet it seems unlikely, operatives said, that Democratic candidates in competitive districts or states will be using the term.

Another messaging plus for Democrats: No one will be able to attack the law as unconstitutional now. Any GOP admakers who readied TV spots criticizing Democratic politicians for voting in favor of “unconstitutional Obamacare” will have go back to their editing rooms. And that could dull the edge of some GOP attacks, national Democrats said.

But the fact that the constitutionality of the law was premised on the individual mandate — the requirement that all Americans get health insurance — being a tax is a potential talking point for Republicans.

“Obamacare is a tax on middle class Americans,” an RNC spokeswoman said in an email Thursday. Whether that line of attack has any traction remains to be seen, but some operatives suspect it might.

“What it does for Republicans, most importantly, is it allows Republicans to say ... ‘This is a massive, unprecedented tax, as defined by the Supreme Court,’” Democratic pollster Dave Beattie said.

As the debate over health care raged in 2009 and 2010, the president and his allies vociferously denied that the penalty for not buying health insurance was a tax.

That rejection was probably not without roots in a political strategy.

In 2008, the president promised that middle-class families wouldn’t see their taxes go up.

As the dust on the decision settles, the long days of summer will transition into the final stretch of the 2012 campaign and the political ramifications will become clearer.

But for now, Chief Justice John Roberts, in his historic decision, perhaps put its political import most succinctly.

“Members of this Court are vested with the authority to interpret the law; we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments,” he wrote. “Those decisions are entrusted to our Nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them.”

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