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Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Bipartisan Meeting of Governors Faces Partisanship and Presidential Politics

President Barack Obama answers questions from the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room of the White House.

President Barack Obama answers questions from the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room of the White House, Feb. 22, 2010. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza. PD.

Over the weekend, the annual meeting of the National Governor’s Association was held in Virginia and the expansion of federal programs was just as controversial this year as it has been in previous years.

First, some history. The National Governor’s Association was established in 1908 after President Theodore Roosevelt called a Conference of Governors to discuss conservation issues. The meeting included the nine Supreme Court Justices, biologists, ornithologists and advocates of forestry science in an unprecedented Blue Ribbon Commission on natural resource management. Roosevelt said that the purpose of the conference was so “this Nation as a whole should earnestly desire and strive to leave to the next generation the National honor unstained and the National resources unexhausted.” In the opening session of the Conference of Governors on May 13, 1908, President Roosevelt warned:

We have become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources, and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers…One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight. We have to as a nation exercise foresight for this nation in the future; and if we do not exercise that foresight, dark will be the future.

The Conference of Governors was the result of the President’s belief that increased interstate cooperation for conservation was necessary; states and the federal government had to work together in order to conserve the nation’s natural resources. However, many governors and some of Roosevelt’s critics thought the president cared more about the natural environment than the Constitution, limited government or private property, and the president’s agenda was just another means for expanding federal regulatory power. Yet the conference proved beneficial beyond just the issue of conservation. Following the conference, governors decided to form an association through which they could come together to discuss their mutual concerns and act collectively. The annual meetings of governors have thus often been used as a forum to introduce policy ideas at the state level and to debate issues of national importance. For example, in 1930, then-governor of New York Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first prominent political leader to advocate unemployment insurance at the Conference of Governors in Salt Lake City.

One of the key sources of national debate and controversy at the 2012 annual meeting of the National Governor’s Association centered upon Medicaid and Healthcare exchanges.

Roberts Rules and Obama Cares

President Barack Obama with Chief Justice John Roberts.

President Barack Obama with Chief Justice John Roberts, January 15, 2009. Official Photo by Pete Souza.

As I approached the U.S. Supreme Court on my way to this term’s last Decision Day, I suddenly found myself literally caught between two extreme factions in the health-care debate.  One group, led by two belly dancers and a compatriot carrying a bed-sheet labeled “Single Payer,” shimmied toward two bearded anti-Obamacare protestors who shouted at the gyrating dancers, “Communists!” and “Single payer is socialism!”  Momentarily stuck between the zealots, I felt like Chief Justice Roberts, trying to find an exit strategy.

An hour later I sat in my prized seat inside the churchlike courtroom and marveled at the chief’s painstakingly crafted opinion, upholding the Affordable Care Act (ACA), while attempting to extricate the high tribunal from a political quagmire.  Much has been made of this patently conservative jurist’s reaching a liberal outcome.  Is John Roberts the next David Souter, Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, or Earl Warren—his Supreme Court predecessors who disappointed their appointing presidents by swinging to the other side of the ideological spectrum?  Probably not.  One liberal decision—albeit in a landmark case—does not a judicial career make.  In fact, on the larger issues at stake in the ACA litigation (Congress’ commerce, “necessary and proper,” and spending powers), the chief reached conservative conclusions.  It remains to be seen whether his limits on legislative prerogatives are mere “blips,” as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her stinging dissent predicted, or lasting obstacles to future liberal policy initiatives.

More important, Roberts’ opinion, partially joined by the Court’s liberal quartet (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan), reflects his historic view of the chief justice’s role.  One of his first acts after confirmation was to send staff members to Chief Justice John Marshall’s Richmond, Virginia home to retrieve the fourth chief justice’s judicial robe on display there.  Roberts wanted to model his robe after the “great chief justice,” as Marshall is called.  The act speaks volumes.  Roberts’ mentor, William Rehnquist, who as an associate justice was dubbed the “Lone Ranger” for his many solo dissents, modeled his chief justice robe after a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta character (complete with four gold metallic stripes on the sleeves!).  Assuming the Court’s center chair in the wake of the polarizing Bush v. Gore decision, Roberts explained to George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen that he hoped to increase collegiality and unanimity among the nine justices.  Unanimity produces stability in the law, he reasoned, which, in turn, leads to more public respect for the tribunal.

With the Court’s most recent approval ratings dropping to 44%, and three-quarters of Americans surveyed believing that the justices would follow their partisan inclinations in deciding the health-care case, Chief Justice Roberts faced a dilemma.  Siding with his conservative soul mates (Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito) would confirm the view that the Court is just another political institution.  Instead, he assumed the uncharacteristic position of swing voter, casting the deciding vote between four liberals and four conservatives.

No Matter How the Court Rules, the Health Reform Battle Will Continue

The Supreme Court

Photo of the Supreme Court by Mark Fischer.

Today’s post is from Eric M. Patashnik, professor of public policy and politics in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and Jeffery Jenkins, associate professor of politics and GAGE faculty associate at the Miller Center. They are the coeditors of Living Legislation: Durability, Change and the Politics of American Lawmaking. This post originally appeared on The Monkey Cage.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in June. If Intrade is right, there is about a 60 percent chance that the individual mandate will be found unconstitutional. But suppose the smart money is wrong and the mandate is upheld. Will the Affordable Care Act then be completely secure?

Obamacare at the High Court: A Self-Inflicted Wound for the Supremes?

President-elect Obama and Chief Justice Roberts in 2009

President-elect Obama visits the Supreme Court as Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. looks on in January 2009.

When the Supreme Court hears the health care case beginning today, it steps into the political thicket, and it does so at its own peril.