Fun, fun, fun via Philip Klein as GOP Rep. Scott Garrett lays a trap and hapless Hopenchange budget director Jeffrey Zients walks right into it. Obama and his apparatchiks have been trying to have it both ways on this since long before O-Care was passed; watch the second clip below, from 2009, to see him battle Stephanopoulos for two minutes on the subject. For political reasons, O doesn’t want to be accused of having slapped a brand new tax on the middle class before the election, but he’s on much firmer ground constitutionally if he can argue that the mandate is an exercise of Congress’s taxing power. So we get this pitiful spectacle, in which he and his team insist to any reporter within earshot that the mandate’s not a tax while the DOJ turns around and tells the Supreme Court that it most assuredly is. (At least one federal appellate court agrees.) The logic is simple: You’re being compelled by the state to pay a sum towards a public purpose, i.e. defraying the cost of health care for the uninsured. But instead of collecting your money and giving you certain benefits in return (a.k.a. FICA and Medicare), the state lets you pay your “tax” to, and receive your coverage from, the private insurer of your choice. It’s a tax, but a tax over which you have a bit more control than you usually do. If Congress has the power to simply take your money and toss it in the Treasury, surely they also have the power to take it while giving you a little extra leeway over where it ends up — or so the argument goes. The counterargument is that if Congress can use its taxing power to steer your money directly to private insurers, then in theory it could force you to fork your money over to any number of congressionally-favored private-sector businesses for not-so-public purposes. Darn it, that’s not American. In America, when we want to let Congress shower cash on its cronies, we force them to collect the money themselves and then earmark the hell out of it.

I honestly don’t think it’ll hurt O all that much if the Supreme Court upholds O-Care on grounds that the mandate is a constitutionally valid tax. Winning that lawsuit is more important to him than having to defend the rationale; if it wasn’t, he wouldn’t have let the DOJ make the tax argument in the first place. If he wins, he’ll simply say that he disagrees with the Court’s interpretation of a “tax,” but in any event, it’s not a broad-based “tax” on the middle class but rather a targeted tax levied on people who don’t have insurance and who can afford to pay. In fact, if he wants to be really cagey, he could argue that it’s only because we now have the mandate that he doesn’t need to raise taxes on the general population in order to cover the uninsured. See? Our gigantic new health-care boondoggle is actually saving you money. Be grateful.