Tax, schmax: Does it matter what Romney calls the health-care mandate?

Conservatives saw red when the presumptive GOP nominee denied that President Obama's health-care mandate amounted to a tax hike. Then, Mitt Romney got back in line.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney participates in the Fourth of July Parade in Wolfeboro, N.H., Wednesday.

Under President Obama’s health-care reforms, Americans will have to pay the federal government a fee if they don’t have health insurance. Does it matter if that fee is called a “penalty” or a “tax”?

That question arises because Mitt Romney on Wednesday said that he agreed with the Supreme Court on this question, and that the fee in question is a “tax." This amounted to a change of position, because earlier in the week top Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom said the campaign viewed this payment as a penalty, fee, or fine, but not a tax.

“The majority of the court said it’s a tax and therefore it is a tax,” Mr. Romney told CBS News in an interview. “They have spoken. There’s no way around that.”

Why worry about this nomenclature? Because conservatives were furious that Romney was, in their view, throwing away a political gift handed to Republicans by high court justices.

Yes, a 5-to-4 majority found Obama’s health mandate constitutional. But they did so by framing the mandate as a tax, which is a charged word. Who likes taxes? Nobody. What’s the phrase Republicans have put in front of “Democrat” for years? “Tax-and-spend."

“Clearly, if it’s a tax, you can argue, No. 1, against Obama [that] he was disingenuous for a year and a half, pretending a tax wasn’t a tax. Second, you can say that having promised he wouldn’t raise taxes on middle-income people, this thing hits overwhelmingly people in the middle income bracket. Lastly, you can say this is a tax like many others in Obamacare,” said conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer on Bret Baier’s Fox News show Wednesday.

However, in quickly contradicting his aide’s description of the fee, Romney risks being called a flip-flopper by Democrats. Perhaps more dangerously, he leaves himself open to criticism that he himself raised taxes while governor of Massachusetts, because he instituted a similar mandate with its own penalty/fine/tax structure.

In his CBS interview Wednesday Romney argued this point, saying that the Supreme Court drew a distinction between the taxing power of the federal government and police powers of states. But that’s the aspect of this debate on which the Obama administration pounced Thursday.

“It’s a penalty,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One en route to Ohio.

Mr. Carney added that the mandate was modeled after Romney’s health plan in Massachusetts, according to a pool report.

Does this argument really matter? Will any swing voter switch sides because they hear something called a “tax”, as opposed to a “penalty”?

Ezra Klein, editor of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, argues that it does not matter – that no one will embrace the idea of paying a penalty for going without health insurance yet recoil in horror from the prospect of paying a tax for the same thing.

Mr. Klein makes the point that the individual mandate is already unpopular, whatever words are used to describe it, according to polls. He notes that it is the least-liked aspect of Obama’s health-care reforms. Opinion on this, and on other aspects of what Republicans call Obamacare, is already polarized.

“The idea that, this late in the game, even one vote will be decided by whether Republicans call this already-disliked policy ‘a tax’ rather than ‘a penalty’ or ‘government coercion’ or ‘jackbooted thugs making you buy health care’ strains credulity,” writes Klein.

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