Thomas Friedman was delighted by the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the healthcare law. And he was positively thrilled with John Roberts. In a June 30 column for The New York Times (“Taking One for the Country”), Friedman praised the chief justice for his “legal creativity and courage.” Not only liberals, he wrote, but even some conservatives were touched by seeing a national leader willing to take an action that “surprised” us.
It’s the feeling that it has been so long since a national leader ripped up the polls and not only acted out of political character but did so truly for the good of the country—as Chief Justice Roberts seemingly did.
America, Friedman went on, “is still a moderate, center-left/center-right country”:
All you have to do is get out of Washington to discover how many people hunger for leaders who will take a risk, put the country’s interests before party and come together for rational compromises.
That is what Roberts did, Friedman wrote, comparing the chief justice to the wounded war veterans who are introduced at NBA or NFL games. Everybody jumps up and applauds them “because the U.S. military embodies everything we find missing today in our hyperpartisan public life.” Like them, Friedman wrote, Roberts “took one for the country.” Politicians would, he added, do the country a great service by showing similar statesmanship and deciding “the big, hard questions” for the national good. “Otherwise, we’re doomed to a tug of war on the deck of the Titanic, no matter what health care plan we have.”
Somehow, I have trouble picturing the passengers of the Titanic playing tug of war on its deck. And I find Friedman’s comparison of Roberts to wounded veterans outlandish. Declaring a law passed by Congress to be constitutional is equivalent to soldiers taking a bullet or being hit by an IED?
By far the most objectionable aspect of Friedman’s column, however, was his specious analysis of American politics. “Listen to the broad reaction to Roberts,” he wrote. “Look at the powerful wave he has unleashed for big, centrist, statesmanlike leadership.” (Can a wave be unleashed?) “That all tells me that people are also hungry for a big plan from the president to fix the economy,” one that will fairly share the burdens “and won’t just be about `balancing the budget,’ but about making America great again.”
Where, I’d like to know, is that powerful wave for big, centrist leadership generated by Roberts and the court’s decision? Polls continue to show that Americans are sharply divided on healthcare reform. And where are all those conservatives touched by Roberts’s decision? Most seem furious with him. Mitt Romney has vowed to repeal the healthcare law on his first day in office, and six Republican governors have declared they will opt out of the Medicaid expansion provided for in the Affordable Care Act.
Meanwhile liberals, while pleased by the court’s decision, wonder how the case ever got that far. As Jeffrey Toobin noted in a New Yorker “Comment,”
That the constitutionality of the A.C.A. was even called into question is testimony to how far the center of gravity in the American judiciary has shifted to the right.
As Toobin also noted, the opinion by Roberts and four other justices that Congress exceeded its powers under the Commerce Clause may limit its ability in the future to expand the size of government and may even invite challenges to current government programs like federal consumer safety laws. “Stunningly retrogressive,” Justice Ruth Ginsburg called Roberts’s reading. More generally, the healthcare law falls far short of the type of single-payer system that many liberals in this country favor and that is commonplace in Europe. The fact that such a system could not even be considered here contradicts Friedman’s halcyon image of a moderate, centrist America.