The only consolation left to conservatives after Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ puzzling decision to uphold ObamaCare was that Republican nominee Mitt Romney could have used the labeling of the bill’s individual mandate as a tax to hammer the president this fall on what many in the GOP have labeled as a huge tax increase on the American people. But yesterday, top Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom, the man who gave the Democrats the epithet “etch-a-sketch” with which to label his boss, stepped in it again. Fehrnstrom told MSNBC that the former Massachusetts governor doesn’t think the mandate is a tax, a point that dovetails nicely with Democratic talking points about the issue and flatly contradicts what most Republicans have been saying about it.
In his defense, Fehrnstrom was saying that Romney agreed with Justice Scalia’s dissent which, had it been joined by Roberts, would have struck down ObamaCare as unconstitutional and which dismissed the argument that it was a tax. But by rejecting the opening offered to the GOP by the Court, Romney has undermined the contrast between the two parties on the issue. If, as the Weekly Standard wrote, ObamaCare offered the Republican challenger “a hanging curveball waiting to be hit out of the park,” Romney may have just whiffed on it.
This is the first genuine misstep by the Romney campaign after months of behaving like a smoothly run machine destined for victory. But even worse than that is the obvious suspicion that the problem here is a desire on Romney’s part to cover his tracks on his Massachusetts health care bill — because the “penalties” in Romney’s bill can also be branded as a tax — and a sign he won’t be able to take advantage of the president’s vulnerability.