For a politician on vacation, Mitt Romney has managed to make a lot of news this week — in all the wrong ways. He might have been better off just competing in the Romney Olympics with his family rather than a verbal gymnastics event against his chief spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s interview Wednesday with Jan Crawford of CBS News was a remarkable retraction from what Fehrnstrom had said just two days earlier about whether the result of not complying with the individual mandate in President Obama’s health-care law amounts to a penalty or a tax. The Romney camp showed that there is no simple answer for a candidate who backed such a mandate when he was governor of Massachusetts.
In an exclusive interview with CBS News, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Wednesday the individual mandate in President Obama's signature health care law, which was upheld last week by the Supreme Court, is "a tax." The remark contradicts what his campaign asserted Monday, when a senior adviser said Romney believes the mandate is a "penalty," not a tax.
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“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” the president said.
The events this week underscore the complexity of Romney’s problem, one that has shadowed his candidacy and may trail him for the rest of the campaign. Although his health-care mandate bears a striking resemblance to Obama’s, Romney has tried to convince voters throughout the campaign that they’re not at all the same.
One could argue that both Fehrnstrom and Romney outlined politically understandable positions when asked what they thought about the decision by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to uphold the constitutionality of the health-care law by calling the mandate a tax, not a penalty. Fehrnstrom said penalty. Romney said tax.
Fehrnstrom said it’s a penalty presumably because that would insulate Romney from the charge that his mandate in Massachusetts was also a tax, which would undermine his long-standing claim that, unlike Obama, he didn’t raise taxes when he passed health-care reform. Romney said it’s a tax presumably because the Republican Party has seized on Roberts’s language to brand Obama a tax raiser. Their contradiction showed that there is no totally safe ground for Romney on the issue.
When the candidate disagrees with his chief spokesman, it’s clear who will prevail. And maybe Romney believes he has moved the debate to the place it should be, however contorted it all looked. But the sausage-making by the Romney campaign on a matter of such fundamental importance brought unwelcome attention, including a savage editorial in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal. The piece used the episode to launch a broadside against the Romney campaign, calling his team insular and in danger of “squandering a historic opportunity” to defeat a president.
Romney has tried to talk his way past his health-care dilemma for more than a year. Faced with the choice between calling his support for an Obama-like health-care plan in Massachusetts a mistake or sticking with it while trying to draw distinctions between the two, Romney chose the latter. Labeling it a mistake would have opened him up to a new charge of flip-flopping for political convenience.
But neither course was ideal. The Romney camp’s calculation was that, in the end, his hopes of winning the nomination would not rise or fall on health-care reform. Despite efforts by his opponents to call him out on the issue, that calculation proved correct. Rick Santorum, who challenged him in the primaries, tried to undermine Romney by arguing that he would give away one of the most important issues of the fall election, but Santorum couldn’t muster enough support to make it stick.