Taxing problem as Romney flip flops on mandate

Fri, Jul 6, 2012, 01:00

MITT ROMNEY declared on Wednesday that President Barack Obama’s healthcare mandate was in fact a tax, shifting his campaign’s characterisation of the law and aligning himself with the conservative voices in his party.

Romney’s remarks, made in a hastily arranged interview with CBS News on a national holiday, prompted renewed criticisms that he was willing to adjust his views for political expediency. Two days earlier, his chief spokesman and senior strategist had said that Romney did not believe the mandate should be called a tax.

Romney was already in the uncomfortable position of standing at odds with the dominant Republican Party message on healthcare: that Obama was imposing a burdensome new tax on the middle class by requiring health insurance. His latest statement, while carrying the short-term risk of allowing his opponent to brand him a flip-flopper, helps him square an issue that could be a political liability with conservative voters in November.

A debate over whether a requirement to carry health insurance can be considered a tax – as the Supreme Court ruled last week it could – has consumed the presidential campaign since the court’s decision. Conservatives have pounced on the tax issue, saying Obama had deceived the American people by disguising a huge tax increase as a healthcare reform bill.

Asked twice on Wednesday whether the president’s mandate amounted to a tax, Romney said that it did.

“The Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation, and it said that it’s a tax, so it’s a tax,” Romney told CBS News. “They have spoken. There’s no way around that.” He later repeated his assertion to CNN after a Fourth of July parade here, an idyllic summer retreat on the edge of Lake Winnipesaukee.

The Obama campaign seized on Romney’s words, calling them a glaring contradiction of his chief spokesman’s remarks just two days earlier.

“First, he threw his top aide Eric Fehrnstrom under the bus by changing his campaign’s position,” the campaign said. “Second, he contradicted himself by saying his own Massachusetts mandate wasn’t a tax.”

Fehrnstrom’s comments on Monday, in which he also said Romney felt the healthcare law was unconstitutional and should have been invalidated, were backed up by a campaign news release that day saying that Romney believed the mandate was “an unconstitutional penalty” – notably not a tax.

The backlash that erupted on Wednesday was a reminder of just how problematic the issue of healthcare reform is for Romney. As governor of Massachusetts, he oversaw the 2007 fulfilment of a first-in-the-nation plan requiring that nearly every Massachusetts resident obtain health insurance or pay a penalty for failing to do so.

The question of the “individual mandate”, as the requirement is known, has emerged as one of the most polarising political issues of the day.

It helped propel the Tea Party movement to mainstream politics, with conservatives calling it a gross overreach of federal power and an infringement on liberty.

Romney’s support of the Massachusetts plan deepened suspicions among many conservatives, who were already wary of him because of the more liberal positions he once took on social issues like abortion and gay rights.

His comments about the mandate being a tax came on an otherwise slow Fourth of July, ensuring that they dominated the news cycle, albeit one that fewer people than usual were paying attention to.

By insisting that the mandate is a tax, Romney has opened himself up to criticism that he, too, raised taxes as governor. His campaign has sought to portray him as a tax cutter, despite the Obama campaign’s efforts to highlight state fees that arose under Romney.

In the CBS interview, he insisted he had not imposed a tax and sought to draw an academic distinction between taxes and penalties.

“The chief justice in his opinion made it very clear that at the state level, states have the power to put in place mandates,” he said. “And as a result, 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 appeared to be making a finer point about the absolute role the Supreme Court plays in setting US law, even if the nuance was lost on many.

“Well, the Supreme Court has the final word and their final word is that Obamacare is a tax. So it’s a tax,” he said.

He also sought to reconcile his comments on Wednesday with his earlier positions – and put himself in line with conservatives – by saying he agreed with the dissent in the Supreme Court case. That dissent – by Anthony M Kennedy and three more conservative justices: Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel A Alito jr – called the majority’s ruling “vast judicial overreach” and argued that the healthcare law should have been struck down.

Bill Burton, a founder of Priorities USA Action, a super Pac (political action committee) supporting Obama, said: “Romney’s ideological gymnastics will both weaken his standing on the healthcare debate but, more importantly, further undercut any notion of strength in his leadership.”

Romney’s remarks proved a distraction from what should have been a day of patriotic photo ops as he vacationed in New Hampshire. He appeared in the annual Fourth of July parade here, energetically working the crowds. “Terrific to see you!” he said, beaming as he stretched his hands out toward the onlookers, sometimes shaking with both hands. “Hey, how are you? Happy Fourth of July!”

Although this is clearly Romney country – yard signs for the candidate dot lawns everywhere here, the site of his lake house – there were a few interlopers along the parade route.

Sid Hall of nearby Tuftonboro stood with a group of his friends and family waving “New Hampshire for Obama” signs along Main Street. About 20 of them were at the parade, a family ritual that is usually apolitical. But this year he said they decided to pull a quiet act of liberal defiance.

“We do feel a little out of our element,” he said with a smile. – (New York Times service)