Controlled by events (5/6/2012)

The United States Supreme Court will have a big impact on the presidential election, health care, and immigration, writes David Adler.

As he lamented the long and unpredictable path of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln candidly observed that no matter what he did, he was “controlled by events.”

Candidates for the American presidency, no matter how hard they work, no matter how much attention they (and their staffs) pay to details, no matter how many hours they spend designing tactics and strategies that would lead them to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, must surely share Lincoln’s lament.

Any number of the issues that will influence the outcome of the presidential election represent “events” beyond the control of the most able, sure-handed executives. The jobless rate, gasoline prices, Iran, North Korea and the pace of the economic recovery, among others, pose challenges that defy easy solutions. Every election, history demonstrates, is also susceptible to surprises and unpredictable twists and turns in both domestic and foreign affairs.

It’s also worth considering, in the early calculations of the Obama-Romney contest, what impact two key Supreme Court decisions might have on the presidential race. Americans have been transfixed by two great public policy issues — health care and immigration — that have fallen into the laps of the Supremes.

The fact that the nation’s highest court will render rulings on these controversial issues reaffirms Tocqueville’s observation that, sooner or later, the great political issues in America come before the judiciary.

Consider the political implications of a judicial ruling that strikes down the entire health care law. Such a ruling, breaking along what is perceived to be a conservative-liberal fault line on the court, would deliver to President Obama a powerful issue. While many might be pleased by the denunciation of the individual mandate, Obama would be able to blame Republicans for the demise of the law’s popular provisions: authorization for parents to enroll their 26-year-old children, and the prohibition on denial of health care coverage for pre-existing conditions. Question from Obama to voters: Now what happens to those millions, if not tens of millions of Americans?

A ruling upholding the Arizona immigration law, with its likely implementation of racial profiling, is just as worrisome for the GOP, given Mitt Romney’s tenuous relationship with Hispanic voters in key western battleground states — Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico — as well as Florida. Once again, Obama will be well positioned to court that increasingly important segment of our voting population with pledges to prevent Republicans from engaging in the constitutionally odious practice of racial profiling.

Consider, as well, the impact of those rulings on Romney’s campaign. If he embraces a judicial denunciation of the health care plan, what does he say to those tens of millions of voters who have just lost health care coverage? In addition, how does he reassure Hispanic voters?

Adler is the Director of the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research at the University of Idaho, where he holds the James A. McClure Professorship and teaches constitutional law in the College of Law. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and the Presidency.