Romney clarifies he believes individual healthcare mandate is a tax

WOLFEBORO, NH -- 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.

Just two days earlier, campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney agreed with Obama that the individual mandate was a penalty, not a tax — despite the Supreme Court ruling that the law was constitutional precisely because it was a tax.

Fehrnstrom said Romney “agreed with the dissent, which was written by Justice Scalia, and the dissent clearly stated that the mandate was not a tax.” The Scalia dissent said the healthcare plan was unconstitutional because it violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. The court’s majority agreed that it violated that clause, but said it was legal because Congress had a separate power to impose taxes.

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Fehrnstrom’s comments caused consternation among many Republicans, who believed that the Supreme Court had handed Romney a gift when it used the tax argument to justify upholding the healthcare plan. And in an interview with CBS News on Wednesday, Romney backed off from his advisor’s remarks.

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

He went on: “There’s no way around that. You can try and say you wish they’d decided it a different way, but they didn’t. They concluded it was a tax, that’s what it is, and 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 remarks, coming during Romney’s vacation at his New Hampshire vacation home, were the second time in recent months that the candidate has been forced to do damage control after controversial remarks by Fehrnstrom.

In March, as Romney closed in on the Republican nomination, Fehrnstrom suggested that the campaign would move more toward the political center in the general election. In words that brought undisguised glee to the Obama campaign, he said: “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

Romney was quick to assure conservatives that that wouldn’t be the case.