Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t. When it comes to the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act, Mitt Romney is in about as much of a pickle, politically speaking, as any presidential candidate can be. Don’t look now, but I’m pretty certain John Roberts is off of Mittens’ Christmas card list.
Loath though I am to agree with Rick Santorum on anything, there was one prediction he made which has proven, at least for now, to be quite prophetic. Back in March he said of his then challenger, Mitt Romney, that he was “the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama” when it came to the mandate issue and that a Romney nomination would be a “liability” for the GOP because it would deprive it of one of the core arguments against the President: namely his healthcare law. Right about now I’m guessing somebody in the Santorum household is saying, “I told you so.”
Whether you call it a tax or a penalty, the simple truth is that once the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional, Mitt Romney was as good as screwed. There’s no getting around it, Obamacare is Romneycare. Period. You can talk about the states vs. the federal government all you want. It’s about as meaningful as saying tomato, tomahto. Most voters could care less.
Had the Court struck down the mandate and the law, Romney would’ve been off the hook. He could’ve spent the next four months talking about the economy and jobs; now he has to devote precious resources catering to a base that’s about as ginned up as a drunk at a wet T-shirt contest, while at the same time trying to appeal to moderates and independents who, while not all that crazy about the mandate, want to move on to other, better things. They want to hear how a Romney administration would get the country back to work, not rehash old news.
Eric Fehrnstrom knows as much. That’s why he said that the former governor thought the mandate was a penalty and not a tax, because, if you look at it rationally, it is. Unfortunately, the inmates at the Not O.K. Corral started shouting from their cells and before you could say “unconstitutional” Romney had a massive headache to contend with. His non-answer answer, though, appears to have done more harm than good.
The majority of the Court said it's a tax and therefore it is a tax. They have spoken. There's no way around that. You can try and say you wish they had decided a different way but they didn't. They concluded it was a tax.
States have the power to put in place mandates. They don’t need to require them to be called taxes in order for them to be constitutional. As a result, Massachusetts’ mandate was a mandate, was a penalty, was described that way by the legislature and by me.
Remember when you were a kid and your mother would tell you not to do something and you’d say, “But mom, you do the same thing,” and then your mother would reply, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Well, guess what? You and Mitt Romney must have the same mother, because that’s the same convoluted logic the presumptive Republican nominee just used on an entire nation. Yes, my healthcare law is constitutional. Why? Because I say it is; that’s why. And my mandate is a penalty and not a tax. Why? Because I say so, also. And not only that, the Supreme Court said it, too. So there.
Well, that’s not exactly what the Supreme Court said. The only justice who referred to the mandate as a tax was Roberts; the four liberal justices went along for the ride so that the law would survive. Their “opinion” was that it was constitutional under the commerce clause. Anyone who read the majority opinion would clearly see that. As for the dissenters on the Court, they thought the whole thing was unconstitutional, not just the mandate.
But let’s for a minute grant Richie Rich the benefit of the doubt and go along with his fantasy. The simple truth is that the Supreme Court was asked to render a decision on the federal healthcare law, not the Massachusetts one. Of course Romney can still refer to his mandate as a penalty, because the Massachusetts law was never challenged in court. But when you break down both laws, the manner in which the respective governments impose their penalty is identical. The offending party is assessed a tax which, in the case of the federal law, is collected by the I.R.S. Romney knows this; he admitted as much during his CNN interview back in ’09.
The real reason Mitt Romney finds himself in this box is not because of an unfavorable ruling by the Supreme Court, or even the unusually candid comments of a senior advisor, whom I’m guessing will be reduced in rank about two notches before the week is up; no the culprit in this scenario is Romney himself. He knew this day was coming for over a year; depending on the judicial branch to do his work for him was naïve in the extreme.
There was one of two paths Romney could’ve chosen regarding his healthcare plan. He could’ve called it the worst mistake he ever made as governor and divorced himself from it completely; or he could’ve taken the unusual stance of saying he was proud of it and wants to improve upon the President’s plan to make it even better. The former would’ve allowed him to mollify the base of the Party and wrapped up his nomination weeks earlier than he did; the latter, though courageous and daring, would’ve killed his chances right out of the gate and allowed a Santorum, or worse, to get the nomination.
So, instead, he chose the “none of the above” option and decided to dance around the issue, hoping the Court would render it moot. Well, not only isn’t the issue moot, it’s alive and well, and it just might end up costing Romney and the Republicans the White House this November. His inability to deal with this particular skeleton in his closet has rubbed more than a few conservatives the wrong way. The Wall Street Journal decided to let him have it in a scathing op-ed piece titled, “Romney’s Tax Confusion.”
The Romney high command has muddied the tax issue in a way that will help Mr. Obama's claims that he is merely taxing rich folks like Mr. Romney. And it has made it that much harder for Republicans to again turn Obamacare into the winning issue it was in 2010.
Why make such an unforced error? Because it fits with Mr. Romney's fear of being labeled a flip-flopper, as if that is worse than confusing voters about the tax and health-care issues. Mr. Romney favored the individual mandate as part of his reform in Massachusetts, and as we've said from the beginning of his candidacy his failure to admit that mistake makes him less able to carry the anti-Obamacare case to voters.
Even if you allow for the obvious errors in the piece – Obamacare was NOT the winning issue for Republicans in 2010; the economy was – the Journal does accurately nail the crux of the matter quite well. Mitt Romney has been running for the presidency for five years. He is shrewd, capable (even if you don’t agree with him) and, as we saw in Massachusetts, willing to compromise to get the job done. By all accounts he was the best qualified among what was undoubtedly the most unhinged group of miscreants to ever decorate a national platform. How someone with such credentials could be this inept is mind-numbing. Romneycare has been Mitt Romney’s main Achilles’ heel from day one; his inability to effectively grapple with it is the primary reason why Democrats are feeling a bit better about their chances this fall.