Mitt Romney’s Press Secretary Andrea Saul was hit with a biblical flood of conservative outrage yesterday, after she mentioned that the steelworker’s wife in the Priorities USA ad would have had health insurance under Romneycare if she had been living in Massachusetts. Calls for Saul’s firing (and eulogies for the Romney campaign) commenced immediately.
In an interview with Fox News Channel on Wednesday, Andrea Saul invoked Massachusetts’s expansion of health coverage as a defense to a harsh new ad funded by a super PAC supporting President Obama. In the spot, a former steelworker whose plant was closed by Bain Capital blames Romney, who co-founded the firm, for his family’s loss of health insurance and his wife’s subsequent death from cancer.
“To that point, if people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney’s health care plan, they would have had health care,” Saul said in the interview. “There are a lot of people losing their jobs and losing their health care in President Obama’s economy.”
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.
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.