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EDITORIAL: Depends on what the meaning of ‘tax’ is

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President Obama seemed to be channeling President Clinton's disquisition on the meaning of "is" during his weekend media blitz. On ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, Mr. Obama told George Stephanopoulos that the dictionary definition of the word "tax" isn't reliable. If the president doesn't like the dictionary, perhaps he ought to consult the very bill he was favorably discussing when he said a tax isn't a tax.

The mandate in question is the financial penalty that Democrats want to impose on healthy citizens who don't have health insurance. One of the main health care bills under consideration calls the proposal a "tax."

As for the negative effect the tax would have on hard-working Americans, the president ought to consult himself. Last year, he said the same proposal would be punitive and unfair. In other words, Mr. Obama was against this tax before he was for it.

On "This Week," Mr. Obama argued with the host about whether a government fee of up to $3,800 for a family of four is a tax. The repartee follows:

Obama: "[Suppose] you get hit by a bus, and you and I have to pay for the emergency room care, that's ..."

Stephanopoulos: "That may be, but it's still a tax increase."

Obama: "No. That's not true, George. The - for us to say that you've got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase. What it's saying is, is that we're not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you anymore than the fact that right now everybody in America, just about, has to get auto insurance. Nobody considers that a tax increase."

Stephanopoulos: "I - I don't think I'm making it up. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary: Tax - 'a charge, usually of money, imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes.' "

Obama: "George, the fact that you looked up Merriam's Dictionary, the definition of tax increase, indicates to me that you're stretching a little bit right now."

That's the first time we've ever heard a dictionary accused of "stretching" a word's definition. But no matter. Mr. Obama explicitly was discussing the bill put forth by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat. Philip Klein of the American Spectator highlighted the relevant language from page 29 of Mr. Baucus' bill: "The consequence for not maintaining insurance would be an excise tax. ... The excise tax would be assessed through the tax code and applied as an additional amount of Federal tax owed."

The tax that the president says isn't a tax would, of course, be punitive. That's what Mr. Obama himself said in a primary debate last year with opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Back then, he argued against the same sort of mandate he is now supporting. He said: "If, in fact, you are going to mandate the purchase of insurance and it's not affordable, then there's going to have to be some enforcement mechanism that the government uses. And they may charge people who already don't have health care fines, or have to take it out of their paychecks. And that, I don't think, is helping those without health insurance. ... I think we can anticipate that there would also be people potentially who are not covered and are actually hurt if they have a mandate imposed on them."

It doesn't tax our judgment much to conclude that Candidate Obama was right about this in 2008 but President Obama is wrong today.

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