The White House attack line this week against Mitt Romney is that he is now calling the punishing fine in the health care mandate a tax, a few days after he said it was a penalty. While this is hardly one of the burning issues in the 2012 presidential election, President Obama’s campaign strategists and his friends in the network news media saw it as a chance to raise doubts about Mr. Romney’s consistency on the issues.
The economic growth rate is slowing down to barely a crawl, unemployment is still well over 8 percent, half of all college grads can’t find work, and The Washington Post made the tax-versus-penalty word debate its lead, front page story Thursday. The network news shows - that have all but ignored the jobs crisis - pounced on the story, too, declaring that this is a really important election issue.
I mean, come on, let’s get real.
To be sure, in its 5-4 ruling that upheld Obamacare, the Supreme Court clearly saw more than semantic differences in the word game. It ruled that the government couldn’t force uninsured Americans to purchase a health care plan by slapping them with a nearly $700 yearly fine, er, penalty, or whatever.
The high court found nothing in the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause that allowed the federal government to force Americans against their will to buy a product they didn’t want, need or, for that matter, could afford.
But five justices, led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., did conclude that under the Constitution, Congress clearly had the power to levy taxes, and ruled that almost everyone who refused to buy insurance could be taxed to punish them for their intransigence.
So five out of nine members of the court declared the penalty a tax.
Mr . Romney did not do so in his initial response to the ruling because he agreed with the four dissenters that the law was unconstitutional under any circumstances. It didn’t matter whether you called it a fine, a tax or a penalty, but he stuck with penalty because it was on that basis that the court said it would be unconstitutional.
But on rethinking his position, maybe he concluded that calling it a tax was the stronger and more effective political position to take.
After all, Mr. Obama promised he would never raise taxes on anyone making less than $200,000 a year. Now, here he was flatly breaking his 2008 campaign pledge to lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.
On further reflection, that’s exactly what Romney said this week. The Supreme Court “concluded it was a tax, that’s what it is, and the American people know that President Obama has broken the pledge he made. He said he wouldn’t raise taxes on middle-income Americans,” the former governor said in a CBS interview Wednesday.
Throughout the debate on Obamacare, the president and his advisers repeatedly used the term penalty to describe the punishment the Internal Revenue Service would inflict on those who refused to obey Mr. Obama’s health care mandate. He still insists that’s what it is.
Why wasn’t this the headline on the front page of the Post: “Obama refuses to call health care mandate a tax, defies high court’s definition”?
A more appropriate story would be Mr. Obama’s flip-flop. The headline could be: “Obama breaks promise not to raise taxes on middle class.”
But no one in the national news media wants to focus on Mr. Obama’s devious political twists and turns on this issue. I wonder why?
Republican leaders were much faster in their political response to the court’s ruling, recognizing that it opened up the more lethal tax issue against Mr. Obama. It took a few days, but eventually, Mr. Romney was on board, too.
Do any of these semantic games matter? Not to the voters. Obamacare remains unpopular, and the tax on incomes that Mr. Obama and the IRS will slap on those Americans unable to afford health care makes this a very incendiary issue. Mr. Romney needs to pound the president on it until Election Day.
The last thing Mr. Obama and his campaign advisers want is to remind voters about Obamacare. The president rarely mentions his signature social welfare initiative because of its widespread unpopularity. Now, it has metastasized into a new income tax (one of 20 new taxes in the law) on the very people Mr. Obama swore he would protect.
The White House and their newscaster friends in New York will be doing everything they can to belittle this issue and to change the subject. But Mr. Romney needs to find a unique way to keep reminding middle-income Americans that if Mr. Obama is re-elected, he and the IRS will be raising taxes on them in his second term.
At the Labor Day launch of his 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan found a way to respond to Jimmy Carter and the news media who took him to task for saying the economy was in a recession. The official definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of zero economic growth, and that hadn’t happened yet. Reagan, the White House said, didn’t understand the basic definition of a recession.
At a rally for and about immigrants, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, Reagan in shirt sleeves went on the attack: “If it’s a definition they want, I’ll give it to them: A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job, and recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
The crowd went wild and Mr. Carter was swept out of office in a landslide.
Mr. Romney needs to summon forth that kind of podium-pounding impatience with four painful years of sluggish economic growth, chronically weak job formation, monster budget deficits and debt, and a president who has broken his promises on an ever-increasing tax burden.
He can begin with Mr. Obama’s recently stated belief that the private economy “is doing fine.”
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.