Republican presidential contenders quickly condemned the Supreme Court's landmark decision Thursday to uphold Affordable Care Act subsidies and pledged to carry on their fight to repeal the health care law into the next election. But some Republican strategists are breathing at least a partial sigh of relief, arguing that a ruling in the opposite direction might have triggered a political catastrophe for the entire GOP field.
For Democrats, the response was simple enough: elation that the law survived its toughest challenge since an unsuccessful 2012 suit challenging its individual mandate.
"I applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to affirm what the authors of the Affordable Care Act clearly intended and wrote into law: that health insurance should be affordable and available in every state across the country," Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton said in a statement. "Republicans in Congress have waged a sustained attack against this promise."
2016 Republican candidates, by contrast, were quick to register their disagreement with the opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts.
"I am disappointed by today’s Supreme Court ruling in the King v. Burwell case," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in a statement. "But this decision is not the end of the fight against Obamacare."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who had signed onto an amicus brief with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in support of the King suit, also accused the court of blowing the case.
“I disagree with the Court’s ruling and believe they have once again erred in trying to correct the mistakes made by President Obama and Congress in forcing Obamacare on the American people," Rubio said. He said he was "committed to repealing this bad law and replacing it with my consumer-centered plan that puts patients and families back in control of their health care decisions."
In his own statement, Cruz grumbled that "robed Houdinis transmogrified a ‘federal exchange’ into an exchange ‘established by the State'" and accused the court's majority of acting for "nakedly political reasons."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), whose state already has its own exchange and would not have been affected if the court ruled the other way, said in a statement that the ruling "turns both the rule of law and common sense on its head." In perhaps the fiercest response, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee -- a longtime critic of federal judges -- labeled the 6-3 decision "an out-of-control act of judicial tyranny."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who announced on Wednesday that he would not restore subsidies in his state had the court ruled against them, urged Republicans to focus on political opposition to the health care law instead.
"Today’s Supreme Court ruling upholding the administration’s implementation of Obamacare means Republicans in the House and Senate must redouble their efforts to repeal and replace this destructive and costly law," he said. Walker has not detailed his own alternative (and, in fact, claimed credit Wednesday for using the law's subsidies to insure poor residents) but restated his call that "Congress needs to repeal and replace Obamacare."
This pivot away from legal challenges and back to the uphill grind of legislative opposition was a consistent theme from the GOP field and top party officials.
"While I disagree with the ruling, it was never up to the Supreme Court to save us from Obamacare," former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement.
"Today’s ruling makes it clear that if we want to fix our broken health care system, then we will need to elect a Republican president with proven ideas and real solutions that will help American families," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement.
Despite the professed disappointment, a number of Republicans had grown concerned in the run-up to the decision about the possible political consequences of a massive disruption of health care hanging over the election.
"Even though it's terrible policy for the country, looking at the SCOTUS ruling purely [through] a political lens this is not a victory for Dems," GOP strategist Brian Walsh tweeted.
Florida Republican consultant Rick Wilson, a constant critic of the law, expressed relief that Republicans would no longer face an inevitable wave of ads blaming them for hiked premiums and sick Americans losing coverage for needed care.
"If you're a Republican candidate, this lets you stay on track and not spend a year with weeper ads on 'x took my subsidddddy,'" WIlson tweeted.
Cruz alluded to this unease at the prospect of a King victory in his own statement, writing that "Republican leadership in Washington is quietly celebrating the Court’s decision."
"If they believe this issue is now settled so they don’t have to address it, they are sorely mistaken," he added.
Many of the Republican presidential hopefuls are from swing states that would have been most affected by a ruling knocking out subsidies -- Rubio, who supported the lawsuit in an amicus brief, would have had to deal with 1.4 million Floridians whose premiums were set to spike. For Walker, it would have been 166,000 Wisconsinites. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who like Walker is still considering a presidential run, would have had to manage the fallout of 161,000 residents losing their subsidies.
Rubio, Walker and a number of other Republicans had called for some kind of transitional subsidy fix that would allow the GOP in Congress to regroup and craft a fuller health care alternative to Obamacare. But the GOP has failed to reach a consensus on an Obamacare fix despite years and years of attempts to do so -- that's because there are basic disagreements over whether every element of the law should be eliminated, whether the government should offer federal subsidies of any kind to expand health care coverage and how to pay for any such expansion in a party militantly opposed to tax increases under all circumstances. A Congressional Budget Office report this week underscored the challenge, estimating that 19 million people would lose insurance in the first year alone if Congress repealed the law and did nothing more. Not only that, the deficit would increase by $353 billion over the next decade.
As a result, Republicans would have almost certainly descended into brutal intra-partisan warfare over the issue that would have sucked in the presidential field as well. Democrats, by contrast, would have been able to unite behind a one-sentence bill to restart subsidies and quickly turn to attack the GOP as dysfunctional.
That scenario is gone now. Instead, Republicans get to do what has worked so well since 2010: Tie any and all problems in the health care system to Obamacare without ever having to acknowledge the downsides an alternative approach might entail, from higher premiums and greater numbers of uninsured to discrimination against Americans with pre-existing conditions trying to purchase insurance. Obamacare survives, but the GOP message does as well.