Better late than never?

posted at 11:01 am on July 5, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

Now that Mitt Romney has adopted the “It’s a tax!” strategy that the RNC and Republicans adopted after the Supreme Court decision on ObamaCare, will all be forgiven on the Right? Not as far as the Wall Street Journal is concerned, which slammed Romney for campaign malpractice later the same day:

In a stroke, the Romney campaign contradicted Republicans throughout the country who had used the Chief Justice’s opinion to declare accurately that Mr. Obama had raised taxes on the middle class. Three-quarters of those who will pay the mandate tax will make less than $120,000 a year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Romney high command has muddied the tax issue in a way that will help Mr. Obama’s claims that he is merely taxing rich folks like Mr. Romney. And it has made it that much harder for Republicans to again turn ObamaCare into the winning issue it was in 2010.

Why make such an unforced error? Because it fits with Mr. Romney’s fear of being labeled a flip-flopper, as if that is worse than confusing voters about the tax and health-care issues. Mr. Romney favored the individual mandate as part of his reform in Massachusetts, and as we’ve said from the beginning of his candidacy his failure to admit that mistake makes him less able to carry the anti-ObamaCare case to voters. …

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.

Losing ground?  The WSJ doesn’t provide any data to support that contention, and the polls thus far show no sign of a significant bump for Obama from the Supreme Court ruling.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake believe that the rest of the Right might be more forgiving, and outline the risks and reward for Romney in his change in tactics:

“The most important thing is that the candidate has it right,” said one senior Republican operative granted anonymity to speak candidly about his party’s nominee. “It’s a tax and should be characterized as such. I don’t know why anyone else would have said otherwise. Perhaps some were overthinking how it would be compared to what he did in Massachusetts.”

The political reward of Romney’s new — or, at the very least, clarified — position on the health care ruling is obvious. Republicans have long scored political points by bashing Democrats as lovers of big government who want to finance growth in the size of the bureaucracy by raising taxes. That the key provision of Obama’s health care law was upheld due to a tax provision, then, fits perfectly into an advantageous political frame for Romney — and Republicans more broadly.

The political risk is also apparent. One of Romney’s biggest weaknesses as a politician is that people simply don’t believe he has a core set of convictions that guide him. The flip-flopper label went a long way in costing him the 2008 Republican presidential nomination and was at the center of his weaknesses in this primary fight.

Not surprisingly, Democrats went after the flip-flopper angle hard on Wednesday.

“He threw his top aide Eric Fehrnstrom under the bus by changing his campaign’s position and calling the free rider penalty in the president’s health care law — which requires those who can afford it to buy insurance — a tax,” said Obama campaign spokesman Danny Kanner.

Well, I wish them the best of luck in selling this as a Republican flip-flop.  The RNC got there first and best by highlighting Obama’s campaign pledge not to hike taxes and his argument with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, in which he denied that ObamaCare was a tax, but celebrated with other Democrats when the court upheld it on that basis:

Combine that with the last 30 seconds or so of this debate between Fox’s Chris Wallace and Obama chief of staff Jack Lew, which features Obama’s own Solicitor General arguing to the Supreme Court in March that they had to uphold the individual mandate as a tax, and the flip-flop argument becomes one that Romney would love to have:

Conservatives hammered Romney for his initial strategy in dealing with ObamaCare, but it may not have been as bad as they thought — at least on paper. In my column for The Fiscal Times today, I make the argument that conservatives were reacting more to the Ghosts of Campaigns Past, and that Team Romney’s approach may have been a good idea, had it been executed a little more expertly:

It’s not the first time [Eric] Fehrnstrom had created a controversy for Romney.  During the primary campaign, Fehrnstrom told CNN that pledges made in primary campaigns could be set aside during general elections, “almost like an Etch-a-Sketch.  You can shake it up and we start all over again.”  In this case, though, Fehrnstrom was trying to protect Romney from the logical conclusion of an attack on Obamacare’s mandate as a tax, which is that Romney’s health-care reform mandate in Massachusetts would then also have to be considered a tax.  Consider what exactly Fehrnstrom told NBC’s Chuck Todd:

“Chuck, the governor has consistently described the mandate in Massachusetts as a penalty. Let’s take a step back and look at what the president has said about Obamacare. In order to get it past the Congress, he insisted, publicly and to the members of Congress, that the mandate was not a tax. After it passed the Congress, he sent his Solicitor General up to the Supreme Court to argue that it was a tax.”

In other words, the Romney campaign had decided to hit Obama over his hypocrisy in arguing both ways on the mandate as a tax – one way in public, and another at the Supreme Court – rather than as a tax raiser.  It also put Romney in position of siding with the four conservative jurists who insisted that the entire law needed to be thrown out and that the tax argument was decided incorrectly; Fehrnstrom told Todd in the same interview that Romney “agreed with the dissent that was written by Justice Scalia.”  Had the strategy been executed more deftly, it would have kept the Romneycare issue out of the way without stepping on the “It’s a tax!” argument from other Republicans.  That might have been a clever plan, had Fehrnstrom not given the specific quote that “the mandate was not a tax.”

Sensing the rift opening on the Right, Romney moved quickly to shift his strategy.  By yesterday morning, Romney told CBS, “The majority of the court said it’s a tax, and therefore it is a tax.”  The speed with which Romney adjusted his attack is consistent with the rapid response efforts of Team Romney over the last two months, which had until now won praise from conservatives as a huge improvement over the relative lack of fight from the 2008 campaign of John McCain.

The need to tread carefully for lines of attack on ObamaCare is already well-known to Republicans.  Romney got attacked repeatedly for his own health-care mandate in Massachusetts during the Republican primary, but he responded well enough to win the nomination — mainly by focusing on jobs and the economy while promising a full repeal of ObamaCare.  The campaign’s effort to move past a potentially troublesome debate on the nature of the mandate to focus on the hypocrisy and deception conducted by Democrats to get ObamaCare passed made a lot of sense, but a fumbled delivery and a highly-sensitive Republican base now makes it an untenable strategy.

That’s no great loss — as I said, the risks for Romney on the “It’s a tax!” argument are pretty low anyway — but it’s also clear that Romney didn’t intend on shying away from the fight.  The bigger lesson might be less that Romney’s team (that conservatives had praised for two months for its willingness to fight the Obama campaign) needs to change, than the need for conservatives not to be so quick to hit the panic button over one response.


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