wpostServer: http://css.washingtonpost.com/wpost2

Mitt Romney’s tax gamble on health care

at 06:30 AM ET, 07/05/2012

On July 4, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney tried to explain the (close to) unexplainable: How a penalty in Massachusetts is a tax nationally.


Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, accompanied by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., right, participates in the Fourth of July Parade in Wolfeboro, N.H., Wednesday, July 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
At issue is the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold President Obama’s health care law by stating that those who don’t opt in to the insurance system can be taxed for not doing so.

Earlier this week, senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told NBC’s Chuck Todd that the governor “disagrees with the Court’s ruling that the mandate was a tax.

In a Wednesday interview with CBS, Romney reiterated his support for the Court’s dissenting opinion, which opposed the individual mandate, but added that “the majority of the court said it’s a tax, and therefore it is a tax.

“Flip-flop,” screamed his detractors. “Finally,” thought his Republican allies, who had been eyeing the tax portion of the Court ruling as political gold since it was handed down a week ago today.

So, what’s really going on here? It’s pretty simple — and guided entirely by political reality.

Romney is trying to sell the idea that Obama’s health care bill contains a tax because the Supreme Court said it does. And the health care law that he signed in Massachusetts contains a penalty (or a fee) because that’s what he called it at the time and the Court offered no ruling on those state-based laws.

“Massachusetts’ mandate was a mandate, was a penalty, was described that way by the legislature and by me, and so it stays as it was,” Romney told CBS’s Jan Crawford on Wednesday.

That’s relatively thin gruel from a policy perspective, but the truth of the matter is that Romney had to find a way to get politically right with his party’s stance on the Court ruling. (And if you wonder whether the Romney campaign was trying to slip the position adjustment in while no one was looking, consider that it decided to make that news on a national holiday.)

Ed Rogers, a senior Republican strategist, said he was “stunned” by the initial comments from the Romney campaign on the tax vs. penalty debate. “I knew a ‘clarification’ had to be coming,” said Rogers. “I’m surprised we had to wait four days for a Romney correction. What Romney did as governor of Massachusetts is easy to contrast with what he would do as the president of the nation.”

That sentiment was echoed by others in the Republican strategist community.

“The most important thing is that the candidate has it right,” said one senior Republican operative granted anonymity to speak candidly about his party’s nominee. “It’s a tax and should be characterized as such. I don’t know why anyone else would have said otherwise. Perhaps some were overthinking how it would be compared to what he did in Massachusetts.”

The political reward of Romney’s new — or, at the very least, clarified — position on the health care ruling is obvious. Republicans have long scored political points by bashing Democrats as lovers of big government who want to finance growth in the size of the bureaucracy by raising taxes. That the key provision of Obama’s health care law was upheld due to a tax provision, then, fits perfectly into an advantageous political frame for Romney — and Republicans more broadly.

The political risk is also apparent. One of Romney’s biggest weaknesses as a politician is that people simply don’t believe he has a core set of convictions that guide him. The flip-flopper label went a long way in costing him the 2008 Republican presidential nomination and was at the center of his weaknesses in this primary fight.

Not surprisingly, Democrats went after the flip-flopper angle hard on Wednesday.

“He threw his top aide Eric Fehrnstrom under the bus by changing his campaign’s position and calling the free rider penalty in the president’s health care law — which requires those who can afford it to buy insurance — a tax,” said Obama campaign spokesman Danny Kanner.

All politics involves the balancing of risk and reward. In the two days between Fehrnstrom’s initial comments and Romney himself addressing the issue, the campaign clearly decided that the political rewards of getting on the “tax” side of the debate outweighed staying on the “penalty” side — or perhaps that the Romney campaign thought its initial position was untenable. The question now is whether it was right.

Pawlenty and Jindal launch middle class bus tour: The Republican National Committee is dispatching two top-tier vice presidential contenders — former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — on a bus tour hitting Obama for his administration’s effects on the middle class.

The “middle-class promise gap” bus tour will roll through northern Ohio and western Pennsylvania today and Friday, noting Obama’s “broken promises” on issues important to the preeminent economic class in America.

The tour also includes Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) and will make stops in Maumee, Ohio and Parma, Ohio, on Thursday and Pittsburgh on Friday.

Pawlenty and Jindal are top contenders for Romney’s No. 2 spot, and the Post has reported that they are being vetted for the job.

Fixbits:

Romney has chosen former president George H.W. Bush and former senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.) to lead his veterans team.

A former spokesman for Rick Santorum gives a we-told-you-so when it comes to Romney not being able to prosecute the case against Obamacare.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) pushes for more disclosure in the “Fast and Furious” investigation.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) vetoes a trio of voting measures — including Voter ID — passed by the the GOP-controlled state legislature, citing confusion over the bills.

New York state Sen. Adriano Espaillat is alleging voter suppression in his close primary loss to Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) is opting her state out of the Medicaid expansion in Obamacare.

The Post’s WhoRunsGov page has been updated with more than 600 politician profiles — including all governors, senators and members of the House. Check out this great resource here.

Must-reads:

Romney: Health-care mandate is a tax” — Philip Rucker, Washington Post

Romney’s offshore assets hint at greater wealth” — AP

Group wants redistricting question on Ohio ballots” — AP

Obama campaign’s portrayal of Romney is paying off” — Michael A. Memoli and Christi Parsons, Los Angeles Times

The Tweet Campaign vs. the Real Campaign” — David Weigel, Slate

 
Read what others are saying