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High Court can kill Obamacare

By Jules Witcover

Like digging up a body from a graveyard, renewed Republican efforts to “repeal and replace” the Democratic Affordable Care Act could make federal health care insurance a pivotal campaign issue again later this year.

A Texas lower court ruling invalidating the ACA’s individual mandate requiring coverage as a legitimate feature could also bring down the entire law, should the GOP-controlled Supreme Court decide to throw it out entirely as no longer a valid tax.

The earlier retirement in 2018 of middle-road Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted for Obamacare, and President Trump’s nomination of more conservative Brett Kavanaugh to replace him, has raised that prospect.

The Supreme Court has yet to schedule review of the lower Texas panel finding that the Obamacare individual mandate is an invalid tax by Congress, and hence that the entire ACA is unconstitutional.

It’s considered unlikely the lower-court ruling will be called up before next spring, well after the election of the next president. But meanwhile the future of Obamacare could be on the front burner between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Biden, if their presidential face-off drags on from now to the Democratic convention in Milwaukee in July.

Since the earliest days of the Republican drive to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, the policy has undergone a public transformation. It has changed from being a political punching bag to being widely embraced as a desired part of the Democratic social safety net.

Preservation of Obamacare has been a continuing crusade of the former vice president, an architect and defender in the previous administration and since then. It remains a centerpiece of his campaign against the progressive Sanders, the prime champion of Medicare For All, which eventually would replace it and all existing private-industry health insurance.

Biden has argued that millions of holders of such policies, whose premiums are paid by employers or trade unions under hard-won labor contracts, would be unwillingly penalized by the replacing. He has advocated a public option whereby such policyholders could elect to retain the private coverage.

The notion had such obvious appeal to affected voters that Sanders’s prime progressive competitor for the Democratic nomination, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, also embraced it before withdrawal from the race.

Now that the party’s battle has narrowed down to Biden and Sanders, their sharp difference between advocacy of Medicare For All and of Obamacare could surface more significantly in Sunday night’s debate between them in Arizona.

Amid all the campaign chatter over Sander’s self-identity as a “democratic socialist,” socialism has lost much of its stigma among Americans. Social Security is a core public staple, as well as other federal government benefits taken for granted by most Americans.

It’s ironic in a sense that Sanders in choosing to identify as a hyphenated socialist is not a registered Democrat but rather a registered independent in Congress, although he votes regularly with the Democrats.

Biden has mildly needled him over it, reminding voters that he himself is an unvarnished lifetime Democrat, with an implied stronger claim and background to lead the party through its greatest political challenge to lift the yoke of Trumpism from the country.

He plainly throws his heart into the effort, as a straight arrow of religious and moral integrity, offering a clear mirror image of the man he seeks to replace in the Oval Office. Biden’s ready temper and loquaciousness would promise a raucous verbal donnybrook in any debate or other encounter with the bombastic counterpunching incumbent.

More significantly, Biden would bring a measure of personal geniality and warmth to the arena against Trump, in a political season already marked excessively by hostility and bitterness.

A fall presidential campaign of civility and truth-telling would be a welcome relief for an American electorate already rung through a ringer of bombast and discord. It’s time for an elevation to common courtesy in our public discourse among all participants, much needed in a nation so deeply and bitterly divided.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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