The Corner

Surrendering Obamacare

Steve Hayes has a very good takeout on the Romney campaign’s bizarre decision to throwback the Obamacare-tax issue yesterday. Steve writes:

One of the few bright spots in last week’s Supreme Court ruling on President Obama’s health care overhaul was a political one: The opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts argues that Obamacare is constitutional under the taxing powers of Congress. The Obama administration’s advocate before the Court, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, made this case during oral arguments, and Roberts bought it. The decision, in a sense, formalized what many conservatives had long argued: The Obamacare tax is a tax.

The politics could have hardly been better: The Obama administration and other Democrats would not only have to defend an unpopular law, but they’d have to try explain that a mandate upheld because of the power of Congress to tax was not, in fact, a tax. Democrats tried unsuccessfully to make that case this weekend with White House chief of staff Jack Lew and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, among others, struggling to deflect the obvious implications of the Court’s decisions.

Those struggles may have ended yesterday morning when the Romney campaign announced that their candidate does not consider the mandate a tax. Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom appeared on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd, where he agreed with the host’s assertion that Romney “believes that you should not call the penalty a tax.”Fehrnstrom explained: “The governor disagreed with the ruling of the Court. He agreed with the dissent written by Justice Scalia, which very clearly stated that the mandate is not a tax.” Later, Romney spokeswoman Amanda Hennenberg confirmed that Romney doesn’t consider the mandate a tax, telling ABC News: “Governor Romney thinks it is an unconstitutional penalty.”

Steve rightly notes that there are other responses — good, solid, American-made responses — Fehrnstrom could have gone with instead. For instance, states have more established police powers so a penalty in Massachusetts’s mandates may indeed be a penalty, but a tax masquerading as a penalty at the federal level may still be a tax. He could have simply hammered the fact that Obama’s own view of the law was repudiated by the Supreme Court and that’s all that matters (a point I make in USA Today today). Heck, he could have just shouted “squirrel!”

Indeed, Fehrnstrom need not give an impregnable, irrefutable, answer. He need only turn the question back on Obama. Instead the Romney campaign threw Obama a lifeline. The whole Hayes piece is worth reading, but what comes away from it for me is that Romney wants to go into a clinch, to borrow a phrase from boxing, and break out of it only to land haymakers on the economy. I think it is an incredibly dangerous, risk-averse, strategy. Romney is against Obamacare. He’s all-in on that point. Obama is twisting trying to explain his position. If for some reason the Romney campaign feels it is imperative to clarify their interpretation, let them do it a week from now. Why change the storyline to Obama’s benefit prematurely — or at all?

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