MIAMI – U.S. progressives have not had much to cheer about for a long time regarding Supreme Court decisions. Last week, however, the Court – despite its heavy tilt to the right – rendered a pair of decisions that represent the biggest setbacks to the GOP agenda since Obama was elected to the White House in 2008.
The first ruling made the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – Obamacare – essentially irreversible. To understand how bitter a pill to swallow this must for the Republicans, one only has to look at how hard the party fought to prevent the enactment of the ACA during the first two years of the Obama presidency, when Democrats controlled the executive branch and both houses of Congress. Despite their political disadvantage, Republicans managed to water down the ACA, in part in the hope of making it unpopular and unworkable.
The ACA was passed, nevertheless, warts and all. But the GOP worked tirelessly to discredit Obamacare at every turn. They made numerous doomsday predictions that have been repeatedly belied by the subsequent facts.
The ultra-right of the party, firmly in control of the House of Representatives, passed about four dozen bills to repeal Obamacare in the full knowledge that they would never get past the Senate. It was as close to serial political masturbation as it gets. Communications/information theorists make a distinction between noise (or static) and message (or signal). This was all static and no signal. “We really, really hate Obamacare,” was the only ostensible message. But everyone knew that already.
Since the passage of the ACA, Republicans have come up with the most absurd (and perverse) schemes to derail it. States run by Republican legislatures and governors have declined to accept essentially free money from the federal government to extend medical insurance through Medicaid to tens of millions of people who work but make too little to pay the exorbitant market rate and too much to qualify for regular Medicaid, which in most of these states requires an income below bare survival.
The latest Supreme Court case on the ACA – Republicans earlier tried unsuccessfully to have the Court strike down the entire law – concerned an aspect of the law that empowers the federal government to provide subsidies for medical insurance in cases in which the states refuse to accept the subsidies provided for in Obamacare.
The Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 3, found that federal subsidies are constitutional. The decision means that Obamacare is here to stay. The Republicans’ last-ditch effort to torpedo it failed miserably. Losing two to one with all the cards stacked in your favor has to sting.
It also has to come as a rude shock. After all, this is the same Supreme Court that, in its Citizens United decision, legitimized and enabled the plutocratic domination of the state that passes for democracy in the United States.
Of course, the GOP is not raising the white flag yet. There is a lot of crazy talk about a legislative “nuclear option.” That will go nowhere. With such a strong Supreme Court mandate, it’s hard to see what can stop Obamacare now, especially given that by every measure it has succeeded beyond the expectations of the administration itself. And if a Republican is elected in 2016, he is sure to have a very hard time trying to take away health insurance benefits from millions of people who never had them before and will fight fiercely to keep them.
The Supreme Court ruling on the ACA was bad news for Republicans, but the worst was yet to come. The Court, in a much tighter 5-4 ruling, legalized gay marriage throughout the United States. From a global perspective, this should not be surprising. A country like Ireland, with a deep history of conservative hard core Catholic domination recently voted – overwhelmingly – for marriage equality.
But for many Republicans, the ruling was a travesty. Gays, guns, and God have been the overt mantras of the GOP for a long time. These demagogic themes have provided an effective smokescreen for their main agenda, government of, by, and for the rich. You can’t win many elections by announcing you are going to govern for the 10 or the one percent.
The latest Supreme Court decision certainly put a damper on the gay demonization theme. The Republicans can still pray to God to make all this a bad dream. But the man who runs the biggest Christian Church in the world, Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical, could not have made it more clear that he stands 180 degrees against all the dogmas cherished by Republicans.
What makes that especially vexing is that Republicans have been counting on Catholics – especially, but not only Latinos – to bail them out of the dilemma posed by the reality of having a xenophobic, crypto-racist base in an increasingly diverse society. But the majority of Catholics admire – adore may be a better word – this Pope.
So what to make of what seems a surprisingly progressive turn in a Supreme Court that has been anything but at least since Gore v. Bush (2001)?
I have, in closing, a couple of thoughts. One is that rather than a progressive turn on the part of the Court, what has happened is that the Republican party has become so reactionary that it has outpaced the capacity of even this Court to twist and turn the Constitution to suit Republican extremism.
The other is that the saving grace of this Court is that it has at least one conservative with a conscience and who is not impervious to the evolving nature of the nation’s and the world’s moral judgments. By providing the deciding vote on gay marriage, Justice Anthony Kennedy, like Pope Francis, showed that a single human being with a clear vision, a sense of justice, and a brave heart can still make a huge difference in this world.