Matt Yglesias makes a strong case re: the likely philosophical underpinnings of Roberts’ joining the more liberal members of the court to uphold the mandate. Namely that, in the absence of mandate, the Democrats would begin campaigning for Medicare for All. And they’d get it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but almost certainly within a millennium or two, and then for a long time.
But! I don’t think nearly that long of a game is needed, though. Presuming Roberts was never going to gut the whole bill, knocking out just the mandate within the political system as currently figured does nothing so well as guarantee the end of the private insurance system we all know and love within 5 or 10 years. This is because, without a mandate, healthy individuals would have powerful incentive not to buy insurance until they are sick. Since the ACA already prevents insurers from refusing coverage for any reason, you’d simply buy insurance on the day you started needing it. That is, to say the least, an unsustainable business model. Some even called for a “poison pill” in the original law designed to create this situation such that even a GOP government would be forced into extending Medicare to all the moment even their constituents could no longer afford insurance premiums.
Roberts knew all of this. He knew he likely couldn’t simply gut the law without adversely affecting the public’s opinion of the Supreme Court in general and the Roberts court in particular, knew he furthermore couldn’t simply kill the mandate without also killing private insurance (gridlock essentially ensured this outcome), and decided the least of these was simply keeping the mandate and letting Congress sort it out. Which, as it happens, was exactly the right decision by any reading of the Constitution and precedent that my not-a-lawyer eyes can detect. Huzzah for democracy.