Is health care ruling Obama's 'Read my lips: No new taxes' moment?

Republicans are beating up on President Obama because the Supreme Court said the Affordable Care Act is tied to new taxes. But that could be a problem for Mitt Romney given his record in Massachusetts.

Luke Sharrett/The New York Times/AP
President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington Thursday after the Supreme Court ruled on his health care legislation, the Affordable Care Act.

Remember “Read my lips: No new taxes” – George H. W. Bush’s infamous pledge in 1988, which he was forced to break as president and which Bill Clinton used to hammer Mr. Bush four years later?

Republicans certainly do, and they’re using it target President Obama – both on the specifics of the Affordable Care Act, which they vow to repeal, and to paint Obama as a tax-and-spend liberal.

Here’s how we got to this moment:

In launching what he’s now happy to call “Obamacare” back in 2009, the President likened the proposed penalty for not having health care coverage to car insurance. "Nobody considers that a tax increase,” he told ABC News. “People say to themselves, 'that is a fair way to make sure that if you hit my car, that I'm not covering all the costs.' "

It was a point repeatedly made by the White House and congressional Democrats as the ACA fought its way to passage. No new taxes.

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Fast-forward to last week and the US Supreme Court’s startling decision to uphold the ACA as constitutional.

Speaking for the court majority regarding the individual mandate, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: "The Affordable Care Act's requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax." 

Boom. Obamacare passes constitutional muster because its chief element is a tax.

"The Supreme Court has spoken,” declared Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. “This law is a tax."

Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political action committee funded by the Koch brothers, has just launched a $9 million ad campaign targeting the ACA and running in 12 swing states.

"Obama's health care law is actually one of the largest tax increases in history," the ad's narrator says. "Shouldn't Obama's priorities have been creating jobs and ending reckless spending?"

Meanwhile, key Democrats were all over the Sunday morning TV blabfests denying the charge.

“This is a penalty. It’s something that only 1 percent of people who can afford insurance and choose not to get it will pay,” White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Everyone who has insurance, everyone who chooses to buy insurance will not pay it. What they’re going to get is security – they’re going to get lower premiums and better health care. That’s a good thing for the American people.”

Speaking on NBC's "Meet The Press," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accurately parsed the Supreme Court’s ruling this way: “It's a penalty that comes under the tax code.” But she stumbled a bit in doing so, points out Josh Gerstein at "It's a ta – it’s a penalty for free riders," Pelosi said, nearly uttering the dreaded T-word before cutting herself off.

(Interesting historical note unearthed by Jonathan Alter writing on Newsweek’s Daily Beast web site: Back in 1935, while the conservative Supreme Court was taking on much of FDR’s “New Deal,” it let stand Social Security because of the federal government’s taxing power.)

There’s just one teensy problem in all of this for Republicans and their presumptive presidential nominee, the man whose chief legislative achievement as governor of Massachusetts was a state health care insurance program that remains popular with most people there and was used as a model for Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

“[W]e established incentives for those who were uninsured to buy insurance,” Mitt Romney wrote in a 2009 USA Today column. “Using tax penalties, as we did … encourages ‘free riders’ to take responsibility for themselves rather than pass their medical costs on to others.”

That's "tax penalties," otherwise known as "taxes."

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