In remarks that illustrate the quandary Mitt Romney faces in confronting the Supreme Court’s ruling on health care, senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said on Monday that the individual mandate upheld last week is a “penalty,” not a tax.
Fehrnstrom comment elated among Democrats, who portrayed it as a vindication of President Obama's position. Obama senior campaign strategist David Axelrod reportedly accused the GOP of "sliming" its purported nominee in rejecting the idea.
After Fehrnstrom repeatedly insisted that the health care reform Romney famously help pass in Massachusetts contained a penalty, not a tax, the host of MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown, Chuck Todd, asked him to clarify Romney’s position on the health care ruling.
“So [Romney] agrees with the president ... he believes that you shouldn't call the tax penalty a tax, you should call it a penalty or a fee or a fine?” Todd asked.
“That’s correct,” Fehrnstrom replied.
Fehrnstrom’s comments seem to contradict the GOP’s strategy since the Supreme Court ruling on Thursday, which is to brand Obama a tax raiser because the law was ruled constitutional as a tax. They also illustrate Romney's dilemma: he cannot brand Obama as a tax raiser without leaving himself vulnerable to similar charges surrounding his days in Massachusetts.
But the Romney campaign maintains that Fehrnstrom's comments were not off-script.
“The Supreme Court left President Obama with two choices: the federal individual mandate in Obamacare is either a constitutional tax or an unconstitutional penalty," Amanda Henneberg, a Romney campaign spokesperson, wrote in an e-mail to National Journal. "Governor Romney thinks it is an unconstitutional penalty."
Nevertheless, Fehrnstrom's comment led the Democratic National Committee to send reporters a series of articles cataloguing how the comment went against the GOP's earlier message. It also led Axelrod to repeat his contention that Romney's "problem" is that his Massachusetts law "was very much the model" for the federal law.
"His case for the mandate was as cogent as any," Axelrod told liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent. "His explanation then of the penalty on 'free riders,' who game the system and let taxpayers and the insured pick up their freight, was right on target. So now, as the Republican Party and their super PACs try to depict this narrow, freeloader penalty, that would touch less than 1 percent of Americans, as a broad tax on the middle class, they’re sliming their own nominee, as well."