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.
Last summer many if not most conservatives dismissed Romney’s chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination because of his personal baggage on the one issue that appeared to be the most important at the time: ObamaCare. If Romney confounded those critics it was not because he convinced most Republicans by his arguments that RomneyCare was a completely differently animal than ObamaCare. Rather, it was because the sinking economy and what seemed to be a real chance the Court would strike down the president’s bill rendered health care a secondary issue.
If the Court’s upholding of ObamaCare on the grounds that it is a tax is the equivalent of an engraved invitation to the Tea Party to wake up and “refight the political battles of two years ago,” as the president fears, it is also an unwelcome reminder this is an issue on which Romney is not going to be able to hit the home run that conservatives rightly expect from the GOP standard-bearer.
Though this unwillingness to use the word tax doesn’t necessarily doom Romney, it does call into question his ability to rally his party on the issue. Those Republicans expecting their candidate to use last week’s decision to generate some momentum this summer may be sorely disappointed. As much as the unpopularity of ObamaCare presents the GOP with a golden opportunity to exploit, it may well be that the only way for Mitt Romney to be elected president is via general dissatisfaction about the economy and not via a wave of disgust about the president’s health care dictat.