Biggest 2012 vote may come in July

Next year around the Fourth of July, as few as five votes will be cast on an issue that may alter the course for those running for the White House and Congress.

That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce whether all, part or none of the national health care system reform law is constitutional.

The GOP national convention won’t be until late August in Tampa, but we should have a pretty idea who the Republicans will be backing against President Obama by Independence Day. It may end up, however, that the high court’s ruling will have more influence with voters than the name of his opponent will.

Already, experts are handicapping the court’s decision four months before attorneys make their arguments in an extraordinary five-and-a-half-hour session in March — at least the Supreme Court has set aside more than five hours to listen to the arguments. Some are predicting an overwhelming win for Obama’s signature legislation, while others see the decision coming down to a single vote, the one cast by Justice Anthony Kennedy. On a court that is often as polarized as the nation it serves as final arbiter, Kennedy’s vote is often the deciding one between two camps that tend to be firmly entrenched in ideological opposition to each other.

The length of the hearing — five and a half times the normal hour that is split by each side — signals that the justices realize just how big this decision will be, perhaps even eclipsing its 2000 decision in the presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

The president, who has come under constant fire from the right — as one would expect — but who also has been stung with criticism from the left, who think he has done too little, has a great deal of personal political collateral wrapped up in this reform law. Five years ago, you might have imagined that a president who could say his administration took out the hated Osama bin Laden, brought an end to the U.S. war in Iraq and helped topple Moammar Gaddafi would have a cakewalk back to Pennsylvania Avenue. Obama, however, is learning a harsh lesson in politics. Foreign policy success is prestigious, but domestic policy is where you win and lose elections. President George H.W. Bush, who got high marks for the first Iraq war and for being in the Oval Office when the Soviet Union collapsed, had that same bitter lesson two decades ago.

Domestically, Obama, hamstrung by a deep and lingering recession, doesn’t have a lot to show voters who worry about joining the high unemployment rolls while watching their retirement savings evaporate. Foreclosures that have been stalled may be picking back up soon, fuel prices look to be nudging up at any moment and food prices are increasing, particularly beef sometime after 2012 rings in.

If the court strikes and the health care law or guts it, Obama will have less to show voters. If it stands substantially or even in total, it will be a rallying cry for his Republican opponent. Millions of votes will be cast next November, but the nine cast by the Supreme Court justices will be a pivotal point in the elections.

We expect the 2012 elections, particularly the presidential race, to be one of the most expensive and most bitter ever. And sometime around Independence Day, you can expect an already divisive process to become even more acrimonious.

— The Albany Herald Editorial Board