WOLFEBORO, N.H. — Contradicting one of his senior advisors, Mitt Romney said Wednesday that the individual mandate in President Obama's healthcare plan is a tax, and stands as evidence that Obama has broken a promise not to raise taxes on the middle class.
On a holiday otherwise light on political skirmishing, Romney effectively overruled remarks from his campaign spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom. It was the second time in recent months that he has undertaken damage control after controversial remarks by Fehrnstrom.
The first of those involved Fehrnstrom's instantly infamous Etch-A-Sketch statement, in which he said that Romney's rightward tilt during the primary campaign would be wiped clean once he secured the Republican nomination.
Then, on Monday, Fehrnstrom gave conservatives more cause for consternation when he said that Romney agreed with Obama that the individual mandate was a penalty, not a tax — despite the Supreme Court ruling that it was constitutional precisely because it was a tax.
That left Romney with an unpleasant choice: Give up a potentially golden opportunity to attack Obama for raising taxes or contradict his own campaign spokesman. As with the Etch-A-Sketch remark, he chose the latter.
Asked by CBS correspondent Jan Crawford why he thought the mandate was not a tax, Romney replied: "Well, the Supreme Court has the final word, and their final word is that Obamacare is a tax. So it's a tax."
He added: "They decided it was constitutional. So it is a tax and it's constitutional. That's the final word — that's what it is. Now, I agreed with the dissent. I would have taken a different course, but the dissent wasn't the majority. The majority has rule and their rule is final. It is a tax."
The high court upheld the Obama healthcare law by a 5-4 margin last week, with Justice Antonin Scalia expressing the losing position — that the law was unconstitutional — in a scathing dissent.
That prompted Fehrnstrom's comment that Romney "agreed with the dissent, which was written by Justice Scalia, and the dissent clearly stated that the mandate was not a tax."
In his remarks Wednesday, Romney drew a distinction between a similar provision that he put in place in Massachusetts and the Obama mandate. Both laws require people who don't have health insurance to buy it or face a penalty.
States, he said, "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."
Romney also took the opportunity to go on the offensive against Obama, saying that, in light of the Supreme Court ruling, "the American people know that President Obama has broken the pledge he made. He said he wouldn't raise taxes on middle-income Americans."
The Obama campaign shot back, ridiculing Romney for what it portrayed as a hopelessly muddled series of statements.
"Romney contradicted his own campaign, and himself," a campaign statement said. "First, he threw his top aide Eric Fehrnstrom under the bus.... Second, he contradicted himself by saying his own Massachusetts mandate wasn't a tax — but, Romney has called the individual mandate he implemented in Massachusetts a tax many times before. Glad we cleared all that up."
The back-and-forth came on a day when both candidates were observing Independence Day and largely taking a break from the political fray.
Obama led a naturalization ceremony for active-duty military troops at the White House, where he also attended a picnic. Romney took part in holiday festivities near his New Hampshire vacation home.
The naturalization ceremony was the third such event led by Obama.
"This is one of my favorite things to do," the president said in a speech to the new citizens. "It brings me great joy and inspiration because it reminds us we are a country that is bound together not simply by ethnicity and bloodlines, but by fidelity to a set of ideas."
Obama also took the opportunity to urge Congress to pass immigration reform, after the failure of the Dream Act in the Senate and his administration's recent declaration that it would no longer deport young illegal immigrants who crossed the border as children, provided they meet certain criteria.
"The lesson of these 236 years is clear — immigration makes America stronger. It positions America to lead in the 21st century. These young men and women are testaments to that," he said of the 25 families gathered for the proceedings.
Romney marched in a parade through the lakeside town of Wolfeboro, where he is spending the week with about 30 members of his immediate family — "a bevy of Romneys," as he put it. He was joined by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
After the parade, he delivered a speech that set aside, for the moment, the bruising rhetoric of the presidential campaign.
Talking about patriotism and shared values, Romney went so far as to celebrate the presence of Obama supporters in the parade, and quickly silenced his own backers who booed at their mention.
"You know what?" Romney said from the back of a pickup truck overlooking a blue-green vista of Lake Winnipesaukee and distant mountains. "They were courteous and respectful, and said, 'Good luck to you,' and 'Happy Fourth of July.'"
Morgan Little in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.