Will Obamacare's Survival Help McKenna?

The AG looks to transform a startling legal loss into gubernatorial paydirt.

"Rob McKenna got it exactly right," says conservative political consultant Mariana Parks. That might be exactly the opposite of how most people are viewing last week's shocking Supreme Court ruling upholding Obamacare. But as the political fallout begins, that is the way some Republicans are trying to frame the news.

How could they possibly make that argument? Parks, who is working for McKenna's campaign for governor, looks to the details of the Supreme Court ruling. Yes, the justices upheld the controversial individual mandate to buy insurance—but only by framing the penalty for the noncompliant as a tax. They did not buy President Obama's position that the mandate was justified by the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. And since McKenna attacked the Commerce Clause rationale (as did other suing attorneys general), Parks reasons, he was validated by the Supreme Court.

In a press conference after the ruling, McKenna didn't say he was right. But he did say "We achieved our goal." His reasoning was that the Supremes confirmed that "Congress does not have the power of forcing you into the stream of commerce. "

Well, actually, Congress apparently does, as long as the mechanism of coercion is a tax—a word, state Republican chair Kirby Wilbur said, that Obama had "rejected repeatedly in his pitch to the public." It seems highly unlikely, though, that voters will delve into those distinctions. McKenna lost his challenge—that is going to be the salient point in the Republican attorney general's gubernatorial bid against Democrat Jay Inslee. Even so, whether that will help or hurt McKenna is not as obvious as it might appear.

The ruling didn't settle the matter of the Affordable Care Act. Rather, it heated things up. Republicans, observes Democratic political consultant Blair Butterworth, "see red meat." Already, presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney and others are declaring that the battle has now shifted to the political arena, where Republicans will try to repeal the act. Meanwhile, Butterworth says, "Democrats, maybe for the first time, are going to have to campaign defending [Obamacare]."

That's the backdrop against which the McKenna/Inslee race will play out—one McKenna is already trying to distance himself from. Asked whether he now supports repealing the Affordable Care Act, he says no. He calls that scenario "completely politically unrealistic," and says he supports many provisions of the act.

Yet Butterworth speculates that the politicking will work against McKenna because it will give Inslee "a wedge." Butterworth contends that the race has not yet produced many sharp policy differences between the two candidates. This, he says, creates one, and gives Inslee a chance to show the kind of passion he's seemed to lack. Says Butterworth of Inslee, "He can say 'Why the hell were you doing this in the first place?' "

But the loss does do one thing for McKenna: It enables him to avoid a backlash. Had the Affordable Care Act been thrown out, says DJ Wilson, president of Wilson Strategic Communications, a public-affairs company focusing on health care, "liberals would have been on fire."

In a state full of them, that might have been even worse news for McKenna.

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