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Roberts' Long Game? The Grassroots Isn't Buying It


“It feels more like he's being incredibly naïve.”

Image by Mark Wilson / Getty Images

In the aftermath of President Obama's Supreme Court victory on health care, some conservatives — and liberals — have advanced a counter-narrative: instead of betraying the right, Chief Justice John Roberts outfoxed and boxed in his liberal colleagues, setting the stage for ever more conservative readings of cases in years to come, by his narrow interpretation of the Commerce Clause.

It may have placated some disappointed watchers on the right, but Tea Party types aren't buying it.

"Roberts may be playing the most brilliant game of 3-D chess, ever," said Dean Clancy, Legislative Counsel and Vice President of Health Care Policy for FreedomWorks. "But it feels more like he's being incredibly naïve."

"Any seeds he thinks he's planting for a future restoration of limited government will in all likelihood be killed off by the awesome tax power loophole he created today," Clancy said.

In a piece widely circulated on both sides Thursday, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein crystallized the argument that Roberts is a "political genius": "If, in the future, Roberts leads the court in cases that more radically constrain the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce, today’s decision will help insulate him from criticism. And he did it while rendering a decision that Democrats are applauding."

Conservative columnist George Will echoed Klein, arguing that "Conservatives won a substantial victory Thursday. The physics of American politics — actions provoking reactions — continues to move the crucial debate, about the nature of the American regime, toward conservatism."

But the core of conservative activists are rejecting this theory entirely. It's time to give up on the hope of a conservative court, they say, and focus everything on November.

"The American people will correct this mistake," said Jenny Beth Martin, founder of the Tea Party Patriots. "The solution is having people elected at every single level of government."

"I think that right now today people feel betrayed by the majority of the court," Martin said.

The new spin to soothe the Tea Party, as opposed to the more cerebral "long-game" idea offered by Will and others, is that the decision is just the shot of energy they need to make change happen on Election Day.

And politicians who made defeating Obamacare a centerpiece for the last two years now have a renewed rallying cry heading in to their own re-election

"One hundred percent of Obamacare has got to be ripped out by the roots," Iowa Rep. Steve King said Thursday on a Tea Party Patriots conference call.

"We know today the Supreme Court's not going to save us. They’re not even going to save the constitution," King said.

Senator Rand Paul spun out a similar argument yesterday, stating that "Just because a couple people on the Supreme Court declare something to be ‘constitutional’ does not make it so. The whole thing remains unconstitutional."

On the conference call with King, Rep. Michele Bachmann raised the stakes higher, telling listeners that "Recognize this: we have to deal with the hand that’s been dealt to us, and we only have one chance."

"Because without a doubt, Barack Obama will keep socialism and the government takeover of health care," Bachmann said.

In their view, Obamacare, which gave rise to the Tea Party in 2010, has regained the shock value that activists hope will get conservatives to the polls, and get them to take out their credit cards. The Tea Party Patriots conference call on Thursday was arranged for the purpose of raising money, and organizers set a goal of over $30,000 for the call.

The surprise of the ruling will, for now, drown out the longer-term implications of the Roberts vote, the nuance of which doesn't mesh well with fundraising calls and get-out-the-vote rallying cries.

"Shocking, yes," said Freedomworks' Clancy. "Brilliant? I'm not persuaded yet."

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