TOPICS > Politics

Campaigns Duel Over Calling Health Care Mandate a ‘Tax’

July 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the days since the Supreme Court upheld President Obama's health care law, a debate has grown louder, particularly in the presidential campaigns, over whether the mandate in the health care overhaul is a tax. National Journal correspondent Major Garrett describes the latest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The debate over whether the health care mandate is a tax remained front and center in the campaign today, even as the president shifted his attention to economic issues at the start of a battleground state bus tour.


JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama was back on the stump today in Ohio, touting his own economic policies and taking a shot at those of Republican Mitt Romney.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I don’t think that Mr. Romney’s plan to spend trillions of dollars more on tax cuts for folks that don’t need them and aren’t even asking for them is the right way to grow our economy, especially since they want to pay for it by cutting education spending, and cutting job training programs, and raising middle-class taxes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president’s stop was part of a two-day bus tour across Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, to draw attention to economies in both states which have been buoyed by a stronger auto industry. But, in his first campaign event since last week’s Supreme Court’s decision to uphold his health care law, Mr. Obama also issued a firm defense of his overhaul of the system.

BARACK OBAMA: I will work with anybody who wants to work with me to continue to improve our health care system and our health care laws, but the law I passed is here to stay.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yesterday, in an interview with CBS, Mitt Romney said he disagreed with the court’s decision, and for the first time, called the requirement that all Americans buy health insurance, the individual mandate, a tax.

MITT ROMNEY (R): Well, the Supreme Court has the final word, and their final word is that Obamacare is a tax. So it’s a tax. It’s — they decided it was constitutional, so it is a tax, and it’s constitutional. That — that’s the final word.

There’s no way around that. You can try and say you wish they had decided a different way, but they didn’t. They concluded it was a tax. That’s what it is. And the American people know that President Obama has broken the pledge he made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that comment signaled a shift in position. A similar requirement is part of the state health care law that Romney fought for as governor of Massachusetts.

And his words yesterday contradicted how his senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom characterized Romney’s view just two days earlier on MSNBC.

ERIC FEHRNSTROM, senior Romney campaign adviser: The governor believes that what we put in place in Massachusetts was a penalty, and he disagrees with the court’s ruling that the mandate was a tax.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney remained on vacation today, but his campaign issued a statement, turning the focus back on Obama for denying his own Justice Department argument that the mandate could be seen as a tax.

But the back and forth over what to call the mandate also raised concerns among conservatives over the Romney campaign’s overall strategy. The Wall Street Journal in a harshly worded editorial today suggested that the Romney camp’s handling of the mandate and other issues could be putting his prospects in jeopardy.

One quote: “The campaign looks confused, in addition to being politically dumb.” The editorial added that Romney’s staff is — quote — “slowly squandering an historic opportunity.”

And with four months to go until Election Day, a new Pew Research Center poll finds that voters believe the campaign is informative, but exhausting.

And we get more now on Romney’s response in the aftermath of the court’s health care decision from Major Garrett. He is White House correspondent for National Journal.

It’s good to see you again.

MAJOR GARRETT, National Journal: Great to be with you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thanks for coming.

So, why the reluctance on the part of the Romney camp originally just to say it’s a tax?

MAJOR GARRETT: The Romney camp was trapped between two conservative camps.

There was the conservative camp that was in the court, the dissenters who disagreed with the 5-4 majority ruling that the health care law was constitutional. In their dissent, they said you can’t call this a tax, or you shouldn’t call this a tax. So the Romney campaign aligned with them, say it’s a penalty, not a tax.

Then other conservatives said, no, we’re campaigning against President Obama and the health care law because the high court in the five majority said it is a tax. So Romney said wait a minute, should I be with the conservatives on the court or the conservatives in my political party who are pressuring me?

So he moved from the conservatives in the dissenting, the four, to the conservatives who are on the political wing of his party to say it’s a tax.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the speculation in addition to all that was that what he was trying to do wasn’t separate himself too much from what he had done in Massachusetts, that he wouldn’t be perceived as flip-flopping.


From the Romney campaign’s point of view — and the voters are going to decide who’s right on this — this is what they’re going to say. Massachusetts is a state experiment, it’s not a federal mandate for everyone. States can do that, they have that authority as far as creating taxing policy and they did it as a penalty, as an experiment within one state.

And they also believe, strategically, as far as the campaign is concerned, Romney’s health care is not on the ballot. President Obama’s health care for the nation is. And to the degree that they can make this a debate about Obama’s law, not Romney’s Massachusetts experiment, they will.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So they changed their mind. And what provoked the change of mind? What happened?

MAJOR GARRETT: Because most of the conservatives who are on the ballot and who are raising money and who are contributing to Romney want this to be a mandate election on health care and taxation.

Republicans believe that once you take the health care law and the mandate, which was unpopular in the polls already, and add a taxing provision to it, as the Supreme Court said, you put two things together that benefit Republicans generally. The mandate is unpopular. If it’s called a tax, Republicans on the political wing believe that’s a double victory.

And Romney has moved from penalty to tax largely to reflect that ideological perspective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Major, how does this sort of — some of this criticism we’re seeing — we saw The Wall Street Journal lead editorial today, some others like Rupert Murdoch, other prominent conservative Republicans saying they’re dissatisfied with the campaign or hinting at that, what’s that — how does that play into all this?

MAJOR GARRETT: It hasn’t been said yet, but I do believe conservatives have a great fear that the Romney campaign over time may reflect and look like Tom Dewey in 1948, a cautious Republican who looks at a bad economy and a potentially weak sitting president and thinks he can just rely on a bad economy and bad poll numbers for the existing president and skate to victory or coast to victory.

That’s not an indictment leveled yet against Romney, but the conservatives who are displeased with him are very close to making that kind of allegation. They don’t see Romney stepping up and making either an aggressive or necessarily consistently coherent conservative critique of this administration.

Now, there’s a lot of time to go. There’s a convention and the general campaign and debates yet to be held. There’s plenty of time for that, but they’re not seeing it to the level they think a conservative representing the Republican Party in its modern formation ought to sound or look like.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meantime, today, some good news for the Romney camp. They put out word they have raised over $100 million in the month of June, which is kind of a record for this year.

MAJOR GARRETT: It’s a record for this year, not as good as Obama back in 2008, but nobody’s going to approach those general election numbers.

Candidate Obama raised about $160 million in September of 2008. But it’s a huge number. And it’s consistent with what the Romney campaign has seen since wrapping up the nomination, bigger and bigger numbers, $76 million last month, a million — this month, still cash on hand behind Obama, but Republicans are gaining. People are funding. Romney will have the resources he needs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And President Obama saying a few days ago, we can. . .

MAJOR GARRETT: Be outspent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We can still — we can be outspent, but not 10-1.

MAJOR GARRETT: And win, but not 10-1.

And it won’t be 10-1, but Romney’s campaign for the first time after the health care decision began to get low-dollar, small contributions. That’s another reason he shifted back to the tax thing, because low-dollar contributors in the Republican Party want to see an aggressive anti-tax message against Obama. And they will contribute if they hear Romney saying it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Major Garrett of The National Journal, thanks very much.