By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – Many conservatives now would like to firebomb the U.S. Supreme Court.
The nation’s highest court issued two historic decisions, back to back, that enraged the most partisan and ideological members of the American right.
The first came Thursday morning with a 6-3 decision upholding the Affordable Care Act – otherwise known as Obamacare. This was the second time Republicans had tried an end-around the political process by using the courts. It failed.
Worse, the ruling made it clear that the court wasn’t likely to smile upon any more Hail Mary attempts by conservatives who want to overturn a law they couldn’t defeat in Congress or at the polling place.
The reaction from conservatives ranged from rage to fury.
Justice Antonin Scalia – who now apparently issues temper tantrums rather than opinions – blasted the decision in a dissent that went well beyond choleric. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Indiana Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and other Hoosier GOP leaders issued statements blasting the decision.
That was Thursday.
On Friday, the Supreme Court came down, 5-4, in favor of gay marriage. That means that same-sex marriage now is legal in all 50 states – and will continue to be so from now on.
Again, the response from many Republicans was vitriolic.
They focused much of their ire on Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion in the health care decision.
“Turncoat” was about the nicest thing conservatives had to say about Roberts. They argued Roberts had betrayed both the Republican Party that nurtured him and the conservative cause that was supposed to sustain him.
In truth, with these two decisions, Roberts and the Supreme Court likely saved the Republican Party.
The GOP had marched itself into what was at best a cul-de-sac and at worst might have been a political dead end.
Just a couple of days before the health-care decision, I talked with U.S. Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Indiana. Bucshon is a doctor by training. He opposed the Affordable Care Act and was first elected to Congress on the strength of conservative anger about health care reform.
When we talked, Bucshon first ran through the typical GOP talking points about Obamacare, but, that done, shifted gears.
He discussed the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on ACA and didn’t sound optimistic about the chances it would be struck down. More important, the subtext of his analysis was that it might not be such a great thing for the GOP if it were struck down.
If the key component of the ACA were knocked down, the Republican-controlled Congress would have had to figure out how to extend health insurance to millions of Americans who just had had it stripped away from them. If the GOP couldn’t do that, the political consequences for Republicans would have been severe.
That’s why many Republicans who expressed public outrage over the decision sighed with relief about it in private.
The situation with same-sex marriage was similar. A majority of voters under the age of 50 support same-sex unions – and many of them see it as the defining issue when it comes to their political allegiances.
The longer the GOP opposed same-sex marriage, the longer the party would be chasing away coming generations of voters.
But, more to the point, the court may have preserved the intellectual and ideological underpinnings of the conservative movement.
Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times did a brilliant analysis of the health-care ruling. In it, she noted that, in his majority opinion, Roberts used Scalia’s words against him. Again and again, Roberts quoted Scalia’s arguments in earlier decisions – many of them about respecting the political process and limiting judicial overreach – to slap down Scalia’s opposition to ACA.
In short, Roberts used conservative arguments to rebut conservative opposition to health care reform.
And, in the same-sex marriage ruling, the court placed limits on government’s power to define and limit people’s intimate arrangements – what normally would be a classic conservative position.
Again, the court saved conservatism from conservatives.
Republicans may rage against the nation’s highest bench now, but, some day, they likely will send thank you notes to the Roberts Supreme Court.
If nothing else, the court put a stop to the GOP’s bleeding.
(John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.)