With an attack ad that swaggered like a Jerry Bruckheimer trailer, Rick Perry's campaign recently targeted Mitt Romney's Massachusetts health care reform (Romneycare) as the unholy sibling of the Affordable Care Act. 'Obamacare' to conservatives, the legislation is despised on the right and has consequently faced increasing legal challenges in many states.
Having initially scoffed at the lawsuits, the White House recently requested that the Supreme Court take up the issue in their next session. Not only will the court almost certainly have to take the case (particularly when circuit courts are divided on the issue), but the decision will likely come down within a matter of weeks of the 2012 election.
Why, after the excruciatingly long health care debate and poor polling, would President Obama want to bring health care up again? Conventional wisdom calls it a lose-lose scenario for him. Either the bill's mandate is struck down and he appears weak, or it's upheld and the Republican base rises up in action.
A number of explanations have arisen: he wants the issue settled sooner rather than later, better he moves the issue on than entrench and keep talking about it, he's a 'good soldier' who does what it takes to serve his country and party, politics be damned...
All these reasons seem to give the White House both too much and too little credit. Here's another theory: it's the smartest political move he's made yet.
Without a settled Republican nominee, the context of this decision is within Obama's governing rather than his campaigning. As a result, the move appears to do little more than empower the argument of his opposition and to bely weakness in both his policy and his politics. Nonetheless, the Republican nominee will almost certainly be Mitt Romney, and the White House has assumed as much for some time. So that context must be taken into account.
When the fall of 2012 comes around and the Supreme Court hands down its decision on the ACA, the decision will motivate Republican activists to mobilize against Obama. Instead, it may lead them to bemoan their fate of Mitt Romney.
The former Massachusetts governor's plan shares so many ideas, structures, and even people with Obamacare that he can't distance himself from the plan without appearing to flip-flop, a much worse fate for Romney. He may fall back on a state vs. federal government argument, but even that effort commits him too much into a conversation he doesn't want to have. Romney defended the law in a well executed, entirely necessary speech on the topic several months ago.
The 'de-motivating factor' of bringing up health care isn't even its biggest benefit. More important than disenchanting Republican voters with their own candidate is the simple fact that it changes the conversation. Unemployment remains above 9% and won't move too far before the election. The economy is the single most pressing issue in the country and White House is acutely aware of its position. They're the ones in charge no matter how difficult the task, so they have to run against a record while the other side can lean on rhetoric.
With this status quo not looking to change any time soon, the Obama campaign needs to alter the conversation. The Supreme Court's health care decision offers one new direction. By timing the court's deliberations, they can be assured that the ruling will arrive in the final heat of the race.
A second issue with its timer set to go off in fall of 2012 also appears to have cross-hairs on Mitt Romney: the renewal of the Bush tax cuts. The Christmas 2010 negotiations re-upped the lower rates in exchange for an eleventh hour Congress that ratified the START treaty and repealed 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'.
However, the agreement only lasts until the end of 2012 and will undoubtedly become a major election issue. While this topic does hew closely to the broader discussion about the economy, that very discussion the Obama campaign will want to avoid, it focuses more on income distribution than growth. Of course, it's up to the campaigns that it stays that way. All things being equal though, the Bush tax cuts debate will motivate Obama's base and force Mitt Inc. to defend tax policies that crucial independent voters often resent.
Barack Obama should be more familiar than anyone with the knowledge that the immediate usually takes precedence over the important. Just as college decisions depend disproportionately on a campus visit's weather, so too can choosing a president come down to the time's prevailing winds, however brief they may be.
The 2008 election may well have turned McCain's way without the financial crisis following Lehmen Brothers' October bankruptcy. Voters are not necessarily irrational to weigh issues in this manner, just highly risk-averse. The financial crisis was an unprecedented and existentially threatening event - it deserved consideration at the heart of the presidential election.
Nonetheless, politicians recognize that elections turn on prevailing winds rather than the storm's full breadth. By timing big decisions about health care and the Bush tax cuts to come about in the heat of the campaign, the White House has steered the election towards waters that look somewhat sunnier for them and considerably darker for Romney. Now more than ever, they need to tack their sails just right.
Photos: Flickr, Rick Perry October 2011 campaign ad