The GOP's Supreme Court blues

Recent political developments appear to have given the president a second wind, says Jules Witcover.

The sudden breakdown of the conservative majority bloc on the Supreme Court in its two critical rulings on Obamacare and same-sex marriage has thrown the large field of 2016 Republican presidential aspirants for a loop.

The votes of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy to sustain President Obama's Affordable Care Act, and Justice Roberts's backing of the right of gay men and lesbian women to marry in every state, have caused anxiety amid the Grand Old Party while heartening the smaller Democratic presidential field.

Most of the Republican hopefuls are clinging to their party's long fight to "repeal and replace" the health-care insurance law. However, they are split in looking for political cover in the marriage issue that raises difficult religious and moral questions, particularly in evangelical and fundamentalist circles.

Justice Kennedy, finding himself in the majority on both votes, drew unusual wrath from Justice Antonin Scalia, the leader of the court's conservative bloc, whose normal level of vitriol and sarcasm toward the justices who cross swords with him was already predictably fierce.

But the Democrats, led by frontrunner Hillary Clinton, have grounds to rejoice in the lemming-like spectacle of her GOP challengers going over the cliff clinging to their cry of "repeal and replace" Obamacare. Citing their reaction to the Supreme Court vote revalidating it as well as to the same-sex marriage endorsement, Ms. Clinton said of the Republicans: "Across the board they are the party of the past."

In so saying, Ms. Clinton threw back at the 2016 Republican White House aspirants the allegation that she herself represents the past, as the wife of former President Bill Clinton, who vacated the first residence 14 years ago.

Just as significant in the last week was the remarkable turnaround in the political fortunes of President Obama, not only in the Supreme Court rulings but also in his very personal reaction to the Charleston church massacre. In his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor slain with eight other parishioners in the shootings, Mr. Obama struck a chord with the congregation by unexpectedly offering a slow and mournful rendition of "Amazing Grace," quickly joined by all.

He commended South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley for calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds, taking care to pair his condemnation of the banner's divisive connotations with an acknowledgment of the Confederate soldiers who perished in the Civil War.

The Court's 5-4 vote making same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states came after a rather tardy evolution toward that position on the part of Mr. Obama. Having earlier endorsed civil unions, which provide certain legal protections for couples in domestic partnership, Mr. Obama had remained silent on actual same-sex marriage.

But in May 2012, during the presidential re-election campaign, Vice President Joe Biden said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he would be "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex marriage, jumping the gun on Mr. Obama's intention to support it at the approaching Democratic National Convention.

Mr. Biden privately apologized to Mr. Obama for forcing his hand. But Mr. Obama told ABC News that his vice president "probably got out a little bit over his skis, but out of a generosity of spirit." The president said he would have "preferred to have done this in my own way ... but all's well that ends well."

In the last week, Mr. Obama also reversed the defeat he had just suffered at the hands of his own party in Congress for broadened Pacific trade authority, by inducing enough Democrats to join the Republican majority. He thus held out hope for some genuine bipartisanship in his remaining time as president.

Taken together, all these recent political developments appear to have given the president a second wind. He displayed a new determination and openness to enhance his legacy.

Fast-shifting public opinion on social issues is being credited now with buttressing Mr. Obama and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, even as conservatism has strengthened its hold on the Republican. All this augurs lively debate in the fight for the White House between now and next year.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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