Tax or penalty? Romney’s evolving statements irritate conservatives


GILFORD, N.H. -- If Mitt Romney was trying to soothe restless conservatives with his July 4 declaration that the Obama healthcare mandate amounts to a tax, he might want to give it another shot.

The Wall Street Journal, whose opinion pages are a highly regarded barometer of conservative thought, published an editorial Thursday that excoriated the Romney campaign for its “unforced error” on the tax issue and concluded that “the campaign looks confused in addition to being politically dumb.”

It was the latest sign of conservative unhappiness with the Romney campaign, which faces the difficult task of pivoting into the general election after a primary campaign fought well to the right of the general electorate.


Photos: The Romneys celebrate the Fourth of July

Some of the complaints have been stinging. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, went so far as to compare Romney with two other Massachusetts politicians who unsuccessfully ran for president: Sen. John F. Kerry and former Gov. Michael Dukakis.


“So,” Kristol wrote after invoking the dreaded Democratic names, “speaking of losing candidates from Massachusetts: Is it too much to ask Mitt Romney to get off autopilot and actually think about the race he’s running?”

The Romney campaign surprised and dismayed many conservatives when it appeared to agree, in part, with President Obama in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling last week that upheld the administration’s healthcare plan, which Republicans prefer to call Obamacare. The court majority said the law was constitutional because it amounted to a tax, and Congress has constitutional taxing authority. Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a strongly worded dissent in which he disagreed.

Obama has said the tax is actually a penalty, to be paid only by those who can afford to purchase health insurance but refuse to do so. The administration argues that, because everyone will use the healthcare system at some point, those who choose to pass their bills on to others should rightfully pay a penalty, while those who do buy health insurance will face no penalty. In addition, the law stipulates the penalty will not apply to the uninsured who cannot afford health insurance.

Still, many Republicans saw the court ruling as a lose-win. They may have lost the overall case, but the fact that the court invoked the t-word in describing the penalties included in the law seemed to give Romney ammunition to bash Obama for raising taxes.

So many conservatives were taken aback when Romney spokesman Eric Fehnstrom said Monday that Romney “agreed with the dissent, which was written by Justice Scalia, and the dissent clearly stated that the mandate was not a tax.”

On Wednesday, in what appeared to be damage control, Romney gave an interview to CBS in which said that while he agreed with Scalia, he had to bow to the majority and acknowledge that it was a tax.

“The Supreme Court has spoken,” he said, “and while I agreed with the dissent, that’s taken over by the fact that the majority of the court said it’s a tax and, therefore, it is a tax. They have spoken.”

The Romney campaign insisted that there was no inconsistency: Ferhnstrom had merely stated the fact that Romney agreed with the losing side in the Supreme Court case. Romney was clarifying by stating that while he agreed with the dissent, the reality was that the court had called the healthcare mandate a tax. If the Supreme Court says it’s a tax, it’s a tax.

That may have been enough for some supporters, including those for whom the entire debate is esoteric and, let’s face it, a little boring. But to the Journal editorial page, it was a reflection of a campaign in trouble.

“This latest mistake is of a piece with the campaign’s insular staff and strategy that are slowly squandering an historic opportunity. Mr. Obama is being hurt by an economic recovery that is weakening for the third time in three years. But Mr. Romney hasn’t been able to take advantage, and if anything he is losing ground.

“The Romney campaign thinks it can play it safe and coast to the White House by saying the economy stinks and it’s Mr. Obama’s fault. We’re on its email list and the main daily message from the campaign is that ‘Obama isn’t working.’ Thanks, guys, but Americans already know that. What they want to hear from the challenger is some understanding of why the President’s policies aren’t working and how Mr. Romney’s policies will do better.”