Health Care Story Burns Itself Out

Thursday’s conflagration was hot and fast and lucrative. Now it’s time to move on.

Alex Brandon / AP

The first landmark Supreme Court ruling of the present media era, the decision to uphold President Obama’s health care law, is already, firmly, yesterday’s news.

The news cycle now burns hotter around big news than it ever has. More people write more words on more platforms, and get them to readers faster. Google News collected more than 25,000 news articles related to health care in 24 hours. In its first four hours, decision sparked more than 1.9 million Twitter mentions of terms related to the ruling, including ObamaCare, SCOTUS, Supreme Court, Health Care, and Affordable Care Act. At its peak, Twitter had 24 times as many mentions of the “Obamacare” than of its mainstay, pop star Justin Bieber.

Nexis has collected more than 1,000 news articles referencing Chief Justice John Roberts in the past day. By contrast, the news clipping service records just 227 mentions of then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist in the 24 hours after the landmark Bush v. Gore decision.

But the hotter media fire also burns faster than it ever has. Yesterday’s coverage and commentary burned through not just the immediate implications, but what newspaper editors used to call the “second day” stories — the political and policy implications of the ruling — and then through fast-forwarded cycle of analysis that used to take weeks. It proceeded roughly like this: The ruling was a huge victory for President Obama, everyone said instantly; Chief Justice Roberts, however, scored legal victories in limiting the Commerce Clause, so this was really a victory for the right, noted analysts on both sides, by noon; Mitt Romney, political writers argued around the same time, will use the decision to rally his base; but, another wave of stories noted a few hours later, his own health care experiments will make that difficult, and it will matter more in down-ballot races.

By afternoon, the counter-intuitive take— that Obama had won the policy battle, but conservatives had won the jurisprudential war — was conventional wisdom, and analysts moved on again.

“No, Roberts’ Ruling Didn’t Doom Liberalism,” wrote Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer.

Where a media storm once augured a topic that could consume a campaign for weeks or months, the new media cycle tends to consume its fuel and to exhaust itself. The most interesting stories that remain are the ones with the smallest audience and the least political impact: The analysis of what exactly Chief Justice John Roberts did, why, and what it will mean for the next decades of American law.

The substance of the ruling, meanwhile, while somewhat unexpected, has done little to change the underlying issue of the campaign — the state of the economy and joblessness — and has only clarified the left-right divide over the unpopular health care law. Republicans will now assure voters that the only way to repeal the law is to vote for them, an argument that may carry more weight in down-ballot races than for Romney, whose past support for the individual mandate muddles his message. Obama can claim the aura of a winner and will continue to sell the bill’s popular features.

But both campaigns, like the media, also have good reason to move on, as a slow summer week interrupted by the July 4 holiday approaches. For Obama, the health care measure’s abiding unpopularity means that he is, at best, mounting a spirited defense. Romney, meanwhile, has centered his campaign on the clear case that the American economy is broken and he can fix it. He has avoided policy specifics, promising to “replace” the current health care legislation without advancing a specific plan. A campaign centered on health care policy — which might have come from a different Supreme Court verdict — would have pulled him into the weeds of an issue on which his own support for near-universal, government-backed health care in Massachusetts makes him a flawed messenger.

And the new media cycle accelerated campaign moves as well. Romney blanketed the web with fundraising appeals and filled his supporters emails with “Obamacare hurts job creators,” raising more than $4.2 million in online donations in under 24 hours. Obama, similarly, sent out 3 emails Thursday, including one headed “Let’s win the damn election” and began selling t-shirts that invoke a famous Joe Biden gaffe: “Health Reform: Still A BFD.”

They, too, squeezed the topic nearly dry by the end of the day. And by Friday morning, Bieber had regained his pride of place on Twitter.

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