This morning, Mitt Romney surrogate Eric Fehrnstrom announced that the Romney campaign construed Obamacare as an individual mandate rather than a tax:
The Governor was clear on many different occasions since the passage of health care reforms in Massachusetts. What we did in Massachusetts works for Massachusetts. It may not necessarily work in California, Texas, or Oklahoma, So what we did works in Massachusetts. It was never meant to be a one size fits all plan for the entire nation. But Chuck, the governor has consistently described the mandate as a penalty. Let’s take a step back and look at what the President has said about Obamacare. In order to get it past the Congress, he insisted that the mandate was not a tax. After it passed the Congress, eh sent his solicitor general up to court to argue that it was a tax. Now he is back to arguing that it’s not a tax. So he’s all over the map.
Fehrnstrom continued by stating that Governor Romney agreed with the dissent in the Obamacare case that the statute was an individual mandate, and therefore unconstitutional.
Here’s the problem.
No matter what Mitt Romney does, Romneycare is going to look like a mini-version of Obamacare. Romney therefore doesn’t win any political points by calling Obamacare an individual mandate; the simply looks petulant for attacking the Supreme Court ruling.
It’s clear that Romney is sticking to his original plan on Obamacare: label it a federal solution to a state problem, implying that it’s unconstitutional. The problem is that after the Obamacare ruling, that bat has been taken out of his hands. The Court has said that it’s not a federalism issue, and has said that it’s fully constitutional. Which means that Romney will have to criticize Obamacare on the grounds that it was a great idea in Massachusetts but a terrible idea at the federal level.
That’s not a winning argument.
On the other hand, Romney could have made a magnificent case against Obamacare as a tax. In fact, this is what starry-eyed conservative commentators like George Will suggested after the Obamacare decision – they said that Chief Justice Roberts had handed Romney a baton to wield against Obama in defining the mandate as a tax.
Romney’s opponents certainly would have argued that he raised taxes in Massachusetts, as defined by the Supreme Court, with regard to Romneycare (actually, Romney defined the mandate as a tax himself back in 2009). But Romney would have a tailor-made response: he raised taxes in Massachusetts during an economic boom-time and did so with the full support of the people of Massachusetts.
Obamacare, by contrast, is the largest single tax increase in American history. It’s a regressive taxation scheme that smacks America square between the eyes in the midst of the greatest recession since the Great Depression. And what’s worse, Obama slid through the tax as a mandate, lying about it to the American public in order to achieve a ruling of constitutionality.
Instead, Romney didn’t adapt. He stuck with his original argument: mandates good at state level, bad at federal level. That’s a tougher argument than taxes sometimes okay at state level – after all, we all know that – but are horrible at the national level, particularly when they’re huge and universal and in the midst of an economic disaster area.
But Romney left that argument on the table. No wonder Rupert Murdoch tweeted, “Romney people upset at me! Of course I want him to win, save us from socialism, etc. but should listen to good advice and get stuck in!” And “Met Romney last week. Tough [OBAMA] Chicago pros will be hard to beat unless he drops old friends from team and hires some real pros. Doubtful.”
Romney has a real problem on his hands thanks to his support of Romneycare. But we already knew that. He had an opportunity to shift the argument onto stronger ground here. And for whatever reason, he didn’t take it.