ABC News’s Michael Falcone unearths video of Mitt Romney admitting, in a 2008 presidential debate, that the individual mandate he passed as Governor of Massachusetts was a tax:
CHARLIE GIBSON: Governor, [inaudible] you imposed tax penalties in Massachusetts [inaudible].
ROMNEY: Yes, we said, look, if people can afford to buy it, either buy the insurance or pay your own way; don’t be free-riders and pass on the cost to your health care to everybody else...
The central argument that Republicans have been making in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling — which upheld the indivual mandate as a tax — is that it proves Obama foisted a massive tax hike on the nation. Yet Romney admitted that his own mandate was a tax, too.
Now, Romney can plausibly point out that his mandate was state-based, while Obama’s was federal. But as a policy tool, either the mandate is a tax, or it isn’t.
It’s clear that there will be a fair amount of political battling around this question. David Axelrod was pressed this morning to say whether Obama’s mandate is a tax, and he danced around the question, claiming that “whether you call it a mandate or a tax,” it is a “penalty” on those who “can afford health care” and “don’t pay for it,” and as a result “end up in our emergency rooms getting free care.”
This is precisely the argument Romney has repeatedly made in defending his own mandate against charges that it’s a tax.
Again, Romney can rightly argue that he has consistently opposed federal mandates. The question of whether we should have a mandate on the federal level is obviously a legitimate difference between the candidates. But if Republicans are going to charge Obama with a massive tax hike, then Romney, too, hiked taxes with his own mandate.
There’s been a ton of discussion as to whether the SCOTUS branding of the mandate as a tax creates a major political vulnerability for Obama this fall. I think it probably does hurt. But it’s also noteworthy that this again highlights the difficulties Republicans will have, having picked a nominee who created the model for the very same Obamacare policy that will be central to the Republican argument for denying Obama reelection.
It’s going to be very interesting to see how this plays at the debates this fall.
UPDATE: Mitt Romney, in a 2009 USA Today Op ed:
Using tax penalties, as we did, or tax credits, as others have proposed, encourages “free riders” to take responsibility for themselves rather than pass their medical costs on to others