A semantic dispute over what defines “a tax” or “a penalty” has pushed Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign deeply off message as he struggles for the right response to last week’s Supreme Court ruling upholding the health care law.
In doing so, Mr. Christie kneecapped top campaign strategist Eric Fehrnstrom, who a day earlier said it wasn’t a tax but rather a penalty. He was trying to preserve the tax-free integrity of the health care legislation that Mr. Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts.
Still to come is Mr. Romney himself, who analysts said eventually will have to take sides.
If he calls it a tax, he will be rejecting his top strategist and flip-flopping on his own stance in Massachusetts. But if he insists it’s a penalty, he would be agreeing with Mr. Obama and undercutting the attack strategy that most Republicans have taken since last week’s ruling.
“Listen, I get less concerned about what spokespeople say and more concerned about what the person who’s going to be president of the United States says,” Mr. Christie said. “I think sometimes we get obsessed over, you know, what different spokespeople will say. You know why they’re spokespeople and not candidates? You just saw that reason. Gov. Romney knows what he feels about these issues, and he feels strongly about them.”
The Romney campaign didn’t respond Tuesday to questions asking which side the presumptive Republican presidential nominee backs.
Meanwhile, Democrats have watched gleefully from the sidelines as the dust-up has dented the Republicans’ chief health care argument.
“He is really between a rock and a hard place — especially when it come to taxes, which is the most important thing for many Republicans,” said strategist Jim Manley.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling Thursday, said the mandate requiring all Americans to obtain health care coverage or else pay a fine to the Internal Revenue Service was constitutional under Congress’ broad taxing powers.
Mr. Obama had publicly insisted the mandate was not a tax, but his attorneys argued to the courts that it was. The Supreme Court agreed and upheld the law on that basis despite agreeing with the main argument brought by the bill’s opponents — that the mandate was not an exercise of Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce.
If it is indeed a tax, that would mean the president had broken his pledge not to raise taxes on the middle class.
Mr. Romney relied on the same mechanisms — an individual mandate backed up by a fine/penalty/tax — in the health care legislation that Massachusetts enacted under his governorship. He, too, would be in violation of his own no-new-taxes pledge if he accepts the court’s label.
Mr. Romney has said he disagrees with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s opinion, arguing that it is not a tax and therefore doesn’t fall within Congress’ powers. However, he says, it still would be a legitimate exercise of a state’s authority.