Say this about Mitt Romney. He’s not one to let a problem fester if he can do something about it. When senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom asserted on Monday that Romney did not believe that the ObamaCare individual mandate was a tax, it ensured the Republican candidate a day’s worth of negative attention. So Romney broke up his July 4th holiday by appearing on CBS News to contradict Fehrnstrom’s stance and position himself with the rest of his party that is eager to capitalize on the Supreme Court’s ruling that allowed the mandate to stand because it is a tax. However, in doing so, Romney was again forced to explain the difference between ObamaCare and his own Massachusetts health care plan that also had a personal mandate.
The problem for Romney isn’t so much the opportunity for the Obama campaign and newspapers such as the New York Times to call him a flip-flopper. It is that any discussion of the details of the president’s signature health care bill invariably involves a comparison to the GOP candidate’s own not entirely dissimilar bill and forces him to eschew the clear rhetoric about taxes and economic freedom which show him at his best and instead engage in the far less engaging hair-splitting about the differences between federal and state legislation. Despite the spin coming from the White House, the tax issue is a problem for the Democrats because they know the labeling of the mandate in this manner means that President Obama broke his word about raising taxes on the middle class and achieved ObamaCare’s passage by a deception. But the more Romney has to engage in what Politico calls “semantic and legalistic (you might say artificial) distinction(s)” about ObamaCare, the less able he is to rally to his side an American people who dislike the mandate and the bill.
Romney is on firm ground when he aligns himself with the dissent by the four conservatives on the High Court who denounced ObamaCare. But if the mandate in the president’s bill is a tax, then so was the one in RomneyCare, even if he and the Massachusetts legislature called it a penalty as the president and the Democrats did of their legislation. Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion drew a distinction between state and federal mandates which dovetails with the talking points about health care that Romney has been putting forward for the last year and allows the candidate to claim some degree of vindication. But for the ordinary citizen, it is still a distinction without a difference.
More to the point, being mired in this linguistic tangle is pretty much the opposite of what the Republican standard-bearer needs to be doing if he is going to mobilize his party’s Tea Party base this fall. While the unpopularity of ObamaCare and anger about the personal mandate’s assault on liberty is a key asset to his campaign, Romney’s necessarily careful approach to the issue is a problem that isn’t going away.
Nevertheless, Romney did the right thing by quickly walking back Fehrnstrom’s latest blunder and taking the hit for it in the midst of a holiday. As he well knows, his hopes of victory rest more on his ability to point out the president’s poor economic record. With a new jobs report due out on Friday, this kerfuffle was best dealt with yesterday before what may be the latest dose of bad news hits the White House.