I previously wrote that the effect of the Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling on the presidential race would depend on how each campaign reacted to it. So far, not so good for Mitt Romney.
Romney’s initial statement made clear that he, and only he, would sign a repeal of Obamacare as president. A good start. Since then, however, it’s either been silence or an unforced error.
The unforced error, of course, was his spokesman’s televised comment that Romney doesn’t believe Obamacare’s mandate is a tax. The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes has a good summary:
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom appeared [Monday] on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd, where he agreed with the host’s assertion that Romney “believes that you should not call the penalty a tax.”
Fehrnstrom explained: “The governor disagreed with the ruling of the Court. He agreed with the dissent written by Justice Scalia, which very clearly stated that the mandate is not a tax.” Later, Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg confirmed that Romney doesn’t consider the mandate a tax, telling ABC News: “Governor Romney thinks it is an unconstitutional penalty.”
It is not all that difficult a) to agree with Scalia — that the correct legal ruling would have been to consider the mandate’s penalty just what Congress called it: a penalty, not a tax — but then b) to point out that the Supreme Court’s ruling makes clear that the mandate is only lawful if it is considered a tax, and that the Obama administration is hypocritically trying to have it both ways by telling the public it’s a “penalty” on “freeloaders” after sending its lawyers to court to argue it’s a “tax.”
The obvious reason the Romney campaign is having so much difficulty following this argument is that it invariably brings the discussion back to Romneycare in Massachusetts. This was the biggest reason some of us felt he was not the best Republican to take on Obama as the party’s nominee.
I feel safe in saying Romney gains nothing by continuing to defend that law. He isn’t going to win Massachusetts. Independents in opinion polls break strongly against Obamacare and are highly unlikely to think to themselves, You know, I don’t like Obamacare but I sure am glad Romney passed a version of it as a governor. It’s a good thing he hasn’t renounced it. Standing by the state health law only hurt him in the primary.
It is an enormous mistake for him to risk pouring cold water on conservatives’ anti-Obamacare zeal.
If he wants to leave it to other people making the argument about Obamacare-as-a-tax, fine. But that’s a far cry from letting high-level campaign staff undermine that argument. And, given that there’s no higher court to which one could appeal last week’s ruling, the Romney campaign can gain nothing from continuing the “it’s not a tax” line.
All indications are that the economy is not going to recover sufficiently or quickly enough by this fall to save Obama. But while the economy is the No. 1 issue for many voters, it’s not the only issue — if it were, there would be no excuse for anyone not named Obama to be trailing in the polls. Romney has to be able to win on the other big issues, including Obamacare. And that requires a better performance on the issue than we’ve seen from his side so far.
Note: Due to the soap-opera shenanigans of a few commenters Monday night, all comments are going through moderation until further notice. Any comment that includes personal attacks or ventures off-topic while the on-topic discussion is still going strong will not be published. Those of you who think anything goes because I need the “hits” do not understand a) what a “hit” is or b) how beyond frustrated with some of you I have become. Be forewarned that the comments you submit, even if they are not published, may affect whether I let some of you back onto the blog ever again.
– By Kyle Wingfield