A semantic dispute over what defines “a tax” or “a penalty” has pushed Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign deeply off message as he struggles for the right response to last week’s Supreme Court ruling upholding the health care law.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling Thursday, said the mandate requiring all Americans to obtain health care coverage or else pay a fine to the Internal Revenue Service was constitutional under Congress‘ broad taxing powers.
Mr. Romney relied on the same mechanisms — an individual mandate backed up by a fine/penalty/tax — in the health care legislation that Massachusetts enacted under his governorship. He, too, would be in violation of his own no-new-taxes pledge if he accepts the court’s label.
Mr. Romney has said he disagrees with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s opinion, arguing that it is not a tax and therefore doesn’t fall within Congress‘ powers. However, he says, it still would be a legitimate exercise of a state’s authority.
On Monday, campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the pressure is on Mr. Obama to choose between calling it a tax or accepting it as a penalty — and therefore unconstitutional.
But one Republican strategist said that was playing “a cat-and-mouse game” and urged Mr. Romney to move on.
“The Romney campaign is overplaying its hand on the penalty/tax debate, given that polling shows roughly 40 percent of voters don’t even know the Supreme Court has ruled on Obamacare and given that there still exists a lot of low-information voters out there who don’t even have a clear understanding of what Obamacare entails and who it affects,” said Ford O’Connell, a political strategist who ran the McCain-Palin 2008 campaign’s national rural outreach program.