WOLFEBORO, N.H. – Contradicting one of his senior advisers, Mitt Romney said Wednesday that the individual mandate in President Barack Obama’s health care plan is a tax, and stands as evidence that Obama has broken a promise not to raise taxes on the middle class.
On a holiday otherwise light on political skirmishing, Romney effectively overruled remarks from his campaign spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom. It was the second time in recent months that he has undertaken damage control after controversial Fehrnstrom remarks.
The first of those involved Fehrnstrom’s instantly infamous Etch A Sketch statement, in which he said that Romney’s rightward tilt during the primary campaign would be wiped clean once he secured the Republican nomination.
Then, on Monday, Fehrnstrom gave conservatives more cause for consternation when he said that Romney agreed with Obama that the individual mandate was a penalty, not a tax – despite the Supreme Court ruling that it was constitutional precisely because it was a tax.
That left Romney with an unpleasant choice: Give up a potentially golden opportunity to attack Obama for raising taxes or contradict his own campaign spokesman. As with the Etch A Sketch remark, he chose the latter.
Asked by CBS correspondent Jan Crawford why he thought the mandate was not a tax, Romney replied: “Well, the Supreme Court has the final word and their final word is that Obamacare is a tax. So it’s a tax.”
He added: “They decided it was constitutional. So it is a tax and it’s constitutional. That’s the final word – that’s what it is. Now, I agreed with the dissent. I would have taken a different course, but the dissent wasn’t the majority. The majority has rule and their rule is final. It is a tax.”
The high court upheld the Obama health care law by a 5-4 margin last week, with Justice Antonin Scalia expressing the losing position – that the law was unconstitutional.
That prompted Fehrnstrom’s comment that Romney “agreed with the dissent, which was written by Justice Scalia, and the dissent clearly stated that the mandate was not a tax.”
In his remarks Wednesday, Romney drew a distinction between a similar provision that he put in place in Massachusetts and the Obama mandate. Both laws require people who don’t have health insurance to buy it or face a penalty. States, he said, “have the power to put in place mandates. They don’t need to require them to be called taxes in order for them to be constitutional.”
Romney also took the opportunity to go on the offensive against Obama, saying that, in light of the Supreme Court ruling, “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 Obama campaign shot back, ridiculing Romney for what it portrayed as a hopelessly muddled series of statements.
“Romney contradicted his own campaign, and himself,” a campaign statement said. “First, he threw his top aide Eric Fehrnstrom under the bus. Second, he contradicted himself by saying his own Massachusetts mandate wasn’t a tax – but, Romney has called the individual mandate he implemented in Massachusetts a tax many times before. Glad we cleared all that up.”
The back-and-forth came on a day when both candidates were observing Independence Day and largely taking a break from the political fray.