Mitt Romney’s problem on the health-care mandate question

July 5, 2012

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.

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.

Now Romney campaign officials think that the economy will trump health-care reform in November. In their calculations, everything rises or falls on the economy, and the more they press the argument that Obama’s policies have failed, the surer the ground on which they stand. Friday’s unemployment report could shift the focus away from the health-care ruling and back on the president’s stewardship.

But it is nonetheless an embarrassment for a campaign that has prided itself on discipline to wander into such a mishmash on an issue that didn’t arise unexpectedly. Romney’s position on the mandate forces him into a legal argument over why Obama’s version is a tax and his isn’t. The argument rests on interpretations of state and federal constitutions, and is likely to be lost on most voters.

Romney at least has put himself in line with his conservative base, among whose highest goals is to repeal what it calls “Obamacare.” But in doing so, he has given the Obama campaign fresh ammunition to accuse him of trying to have it both ways. Why the Romney team didn’t settle on one line of argument after the court decision is the question that has caused such consternation from its Republican allies.

The Wall Street Journal’s complaint that the campaign is too insular echoes one that Democrats have sometimes leveled against Obama and his White House. But coming after tweets on the same theme this week by Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns the Journal, and former General Electric chief Jack Welch, the editorial is anything but helpful for those at the Boston headquarters.

The Romney campaign has been enlarging its circle and its staff since the primaries. In many ways, officials have executed a fairly seamless transition to the general-election contest, including a friendly takeover of the Republican National Committee. Big changes in the campaign structure seem unlikely and could be as destructive as some believe they would be helpful.

This week’s tempest raises familiar questions about the candidate: what he believes and why. Romney always has been a difficult fit with the GOP that won the 2010 midterm elections, and that is why his nomination battle has played out so long.

At a time when he has been moving to consolidate his base with evident success, according to the polls, he has again opened himself up to concerns from those he needs most. He must hope that this latest eruption doesn’t turn into much more than a holiday-week distraction. If it doesn’t, he will count himself lucky.

For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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