Democrats had a little trouble with their messaging yesterday in the wake of what should have been a big victory for them last week at the Supreme Court.  Instead, the legal victory has given way to a huge political headache, and perhaps even a linguistic headache as well.  How can Democrats argue that ObamaCare isn’t a huge tax when the Supreme Court decision that upheld it clearly states that it’s only constitutional as a huge tax?  Nancy Pelosi tried arguing that it’s not a tax but a penalty when challenged by David Gregory on Meet the Press, but even she couldn’t spit that one out cleanly:

Politico’s Josh Gerstein noticed it, too:

“It’s a penalty that comes under the Tax Code,” Pelosi said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” as host David Gregory pressed her to say whether she agreed with the Supreme Court, which deemed the law constitutional because the fee used to enforce the individual mandate amounts to a tax, or with President Barack Obama, who has maintained the fee is not a tax.

“It’s a ta—; it’s a penalty for free riders,” Pelosi said, nearly uttering the dreaded T-word before cutting herself off.

Actually, Pelosi slips twice in this clip.  The first time comes when she asks Gregory, “Well, who is the ta — who is the penalty on?”  Obviously, Pelosi hasn’t grown comfortable with the official Democratic nomenclature as they try to unwind the political damage that comes from their legal victory.

Of course the mandate is a tax, and neither Gregory nor Chris Wallace with Jack Lew actually get to the heart of the problem.  Both of them limit the tax question to just the penalty, but the mandate requires taxpayers to spend a significant amount of money in a very narrow way.  They must buy health insurance from private providers — and not just any insurance or a plan that best meets their own specific needs, but a one-size-fits-all plan — or pay a penalty to the IRS.  That’s a tax either way; the only difference is who collects it.  It’s the first federal tax applied in general to the public (as opposed to an excise tax on certain sales transactions that could be avoided by not participating in that kind of trade, for instance) that has to be paid to a private entity rather than government.  Either way, though, the government forces taxpayers to spend that money just on the basis of their existence, and that’s clearly a tax even if you never have to pay the penalty to the IRS.