It’s A Tax! Romney Shifts Words On Obamacare Criticism
Wolfeboro, N.H. Mitt Romney declared Wednesday that President Barack Obama’s health care mandate was in fact a tax, shifting his campaign’s characterization of the law and aligning himself with the conservative voices in his party.
Rather than clarify his position, Romney’s remarks, made in an interview with CBS News on a national holiday, only renewed criticisms that he was willing to shift his views for political expediency. And they appeared to directly contradict his chief spokesman, who had said just two days earlier, “The mandate was not a tax.”
Romney’s declaration suggested that the campaign was willing to take the short-term risk of being accused of inconsistency so that in the long term it could fall into line with the dominant Republican Party message on health care: That Obama was imposing a tax through his insurance mandate.
But the position carries substantial political risks for Romney, who as Massachusetts governor signed into law a similar insurance mandate, one that the Obama administration used as a model.
A debate over whether a requirement to carry health insurance can be considered a tax — as the Supreme Court ruled it could last week — has consumed the presidential campaign since the court’s decision. Conservatives have pounced on the tax issue, saying that Obama had deceived the American people by masquerading a huge tax increase as his health care reform bill.
Asked twice Wednesday whether the president’s mandate amounted to a tax, Romney said that it did.
“The Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation, and it said that it’s a tax, so it’s a tax,” Romney said in an interview with CBS News. “They have spoken. There’s no way around that.”
He later repeated his assertion to CNN after a Fourth of July parade here, an idyllic summer retreat on the edge of Lake Winnipesaukee.
The Obama campaign quickly seized on Romney’s words, calling them a glaring contradiction of his chief spokesman’s remarks just two days earlier.
‘’First, he threw his top aide Eric Fehrnstrom under the bus by changing his campaign’s position,” the campaign said in a written statement. “Second, he contradicted himself by saying his own Massachusetts mandate wasn’t a tax.”
Fehrnstrom’s comments Monday, in which he also said Romney felt the health care law was unconstitutional and should have been invalidated, were backed up by a campaign news release issued later that day saying that Romney believed the mandate is “an unconstitutional penalty” — notably not a tax.
The backlash that erupted Wednesday was a reminder of just how problematic the issue of health care reform is for Romney. As governor, he oversaw the 2007 fulfillment of a first-in-the-nation plan requiring that nearly every Massachusetts resident obtain health insurance or pay a penalty for failing to do so.
The question of the “individual mandate,” as the requirement is known, has emerged as one of the most polarizing political issues of the day. It helped propel the Tea Party movement to mainstream politics, with conservatives calling it a gross overreach of federal power and an infringement on liberty.
Romney’s support of the Massachusetts plan has only served to deepen suspicions of him among many conservatives, who were already wary of the more liberal positions he once took on social issues like abortion and gay rights.
His comments about the mandate being a tax came on an otherwise slow Fourth of July, ensuring that they dominated the news cycle, albeit one that far fewer people than usual were paying attention to.
By insisting that the mandate is a tax, Romney has opened himself up to a Catch-22: The criticism that he, too, raised taxes as governor. His campaign has sought to portray him as a tax cutter, despite efforts by the Obama campaign to highlight various state fees that went up under his governorship.
In the CBS interview, he insisted that he had not imposed a tax and sought to draw an academic distinction between taxes and penalties.
“The chief justice in his opinion made it very clear that at the state level, states have the power to put in place mandates,” he said. “And as a result, Massachusetts’ mandate was a mandate, was a penalty, was described that way by the legislature and by me, and so it stays as it was.”
Romney appeared to be making a finer point about the absolute role the Supreme Court plays in setting US law, even if the nuance was lost on many.
“Well, the Supreme Court has the final word and their final word is that Obamacare is a tax. So it’s a tax,” he said.
He also sought to square his comments Wednesday with his earlier positions — and put himself in line with conservatives — by saying he agreed with the dissent in the Supreme Court case. That dissent, joined by three of the court’s conservatives — Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — called the majority’s ruling “vast judicial overreach” and argued that the health care law should have been struck down.
Bill Burton, a founder of Priorities USA Action, a “super PAC” supporting Obama, said that “Romney’s ideological gymnastics will both weaken his standing on the health care debate but, more importantly, will further undercut any notion of strength in his leadership.”
Romney’s remarks proved a distraction from what should have been a day of patriotic photo-ops as he vacationed in New Hampshire. The candidate appeared in the annual Fourth of July parade here, energetically working the crowds and leaving few hands unshaken.
‘’Terrific to see you!” he said, beaming as he stretched his hands out toward the onlookers, sometimes shaking with both hands. “Hey, how are you? Happy Fourth of July!”
Although this is clearly Romney country — yard signs for the candidate dot lawns everywhere here, the site of his summer lake house — there were a few interlopers along the parade route.
Sid Hall of nearby Tuftonboro waved an Obama sign, acknowledging, “We feel a little out of our element here.”
The New York Times News Service