Republicans Turn Health Reform Loss into a Rallying Cry

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Republican U.S. Presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks in response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Healthcare Act, June 28, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Since its passage (and even before), Republicans have cast President Obama’s health-care reform law as an unconstitutional power grab that trampled Americans’ liberty by requiring them to purchase insurance or pay a penalty. That argument was shredded Thursday by one of their own. Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative icon, authored the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision that upheld the law’s so-called individual mandate by framing it as a tax. In wake of the decision, Republicans swiftly pivoted to a new argument: that the duty to repeal the law now falls to Congress, making it doubly important that the party gain control of both houses and win the presidency in November. They spun a loss into a rallying cry. You work with what you have.

Less than two hours after the Roberts Court handed down its opinion, Mitt Romney stood on the rooftop of an office building a few blocks from the court’s white marble temple, the capitol dome gleaming behind him, and vowed once again to repeal President Obama’s signature piece of legislation. “Our mission is clear: If we want to get rid of Obamacare, we’re going to have to replace President Obama,” he said.

(MORE: The Supreme Court’s Health Care Ruling: The Winners and Losers)

For Romney, the Court’s ruling is embedded with political benefits. It allows him to wield the health-care overhaul as a political cudgel. The law’s constitutionality, Romney said, does not made it any less a pernicious law, and he proceeded to rattle off a litany of objections, casting Obamacare as the morally corrupt centerpiece of the tax-and-spend “liberal agenda.” By lunchtime, he had raised more than $1 million off the ruling, according to a campaign spokeswoman.

To fulfill his pledge of repeal, however, Romney needs Republicans to hold their majority in the House and retake the Senate. As they have since the start of the 112th Congress, Republicans vowed Thursday to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. “Today’s ruling underscores the urgency of repealing this harmful law in its entirety,” House Speaker John Boehner said. The House plans to hold a repeal vote on July 11, Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor said.

(MORE: Obama’s Big Health Care Win: An Incredible Stroke of Luck)

The impact will be merely symbolic. The House voted to repeal the law two weeks after taking control of the chamber, on January 19, 2011. The measure was stymied by the Democratic Senate, and it will be again. While the corollary to the push for repeal has been a promise to replace it with something better, even before Thursday ruling was handed down GOP leaders conceded there would be no progress on that score until after November.

Knowing repeal will be impossible without gains in the November elections, Republicans said the court’s decision underscored the urgency of ousting Obama.  “Today’s Supreme Court decision sets the stakes for November’s election,” said RNC chairman Reince Priebus. “If there is a majority in the Senate, and a majority in the House, and if we have a Mitt Romney as the next president of the United States, we can and we will repeal Obamacare,” Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann said on CNN. “There is no hope of that if Barack Obama wins a second term and if Harry Reid continues to hold the gavel in the United States Senate.”

By stressing the importance of electoral gains, the GOP is hoping to spur the party’s base to the polls. Many Republicans predicted it would work. “The Supreme Court just woke up a sleeping giant,” declared Arizona House Republican Dave Schweikert. Steven Law, the president of the conservative political-action committee American Crossroads, predicted the decision would “drive Republican voter intensity sky-high. The last time Obamacare was litigated in a general election, Republicans picked up an historic number of seats in the U.S. House and made big gains in the U.S. Senate.”

(MORE: Team Obama Breathes a Sigh of Relief and Moves On)

But this is not 2010. Conservatives’ success in that wave election hinged on their ability to cast the individual mandate as an infringement on individual liberty. That argument went up in smoke with the majority opinion of Chief Justice Roberts, a jurist appointed by George W. Bush whose credentials in conservative circles were — until roughly 10:15 Thursday morning — above reproach. Now that the question of the law’s constitutionality has been dispelled, its popularity with the public could rise.

Though the law in sum has rated poorly in public polls, many of its provisions — from the requirement preventing insurance companies from denying patients with preexisting conditions to one that allows young adults to remain on their parents’ plans until they turn 26 — have long been popular. In remarks shortly after the bill’s passage, the President spent much of his time outlining popular aspects of the law, and his Administration will surely redouble their effects to accentuate these aspects of the law.

Conceding the question of constitutionality, conservatives zeroed in on the law’s costs, framing it as expensive and ineffectual. From Priebus on down, Republicans decried the law as “budget-busting”; the pervasiveness of the adjective revealed a carefully coordinated response. On cue, the RNC set about spreading the #fullrepeal hashtag on Twitter.

(MORE: How the Supreme Court Rose Above Partisan Politics)

In addition to the law’s costs, many conservatives hammered the President for misleading the American people. “The Supreme Court has spoken. This law is a tax,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who correctly noted that Obama himself denied during a 2009 interview that the mandate was a tax. (The White House has described it as a “fine.”) Said McConnell: “This bill was sold to the American people on a deception.” On Twitter, Sarah Palin wrote: “Obama lied to the American people. Again.”

Armed with claims like these, the GOP will try to sway swing voters into giving the party the power to repeal the law. “It is now up to the political process to repeal the act and replace it with measures that address the health care crisis within the confines of the Constitution,” said Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma, the chairman of the association of Republican attorneys general. “This fall, the American people will have the opportunity to save the country from a disastrous future of similarly intrusive policies and budget-busting costs by choosing their leaders wisely.”

What’s clear is that the election, which until now has been a grinding volley of stunts and squabbles, has been infused with fresh import. For the vast majority of swing voters, the economy will trump health care. But each party’s respective base is likely to be energized by the court’s ruling. And Romney’s scathing appraisal of the law’s consequences suggested that the former Massachusetts governor, who passed a universal health-care law that served as the model for Obama’s, would make overturning his opponent’s signal piece of legislation a pillar of his fall campaign. “That is my mission. That is our work,” Romney said, “and I’m asking the American people to join me.”

Corrected, 1:10 p.m. Friday: The original version of this story misquoted Mitt Romney as saying, “If we want to get rid of Obamacare, we’re going to have to get rid of President Obama.” Romney actually said, “If we want to get rid of Obamacare, we’re going to have to replace President Obama.” 

SPECIAL: TIME’s Complete Coverage of the Affordable Care Act