Team Romney muddies Republican message after healthcare ruling

Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign broke with congressional Republicans on Monday by arguing that the individual mandate upheld by the Supreme Court last week is a penalty, not a tax.

The split undercut a forceful Republican line of attack, leaving one GOP strategist furious with the Romney campaign.

“That was the best consolation prize we could get out [of] the Supreme Court decision, and for them to pull the rug out from Republicans on this issue is political malpractice,” the strategist told The Hill.

“He’s taken the Republican message, one that elected leaders, officials and pundits across the country had banded together on, and that had rallied conservatives around the tax issue, and flushed it down the toilet,” the strategist continued. “The worst thing they could do was make a comment undercutting it, and it makes people nervous about what their strategy is.”

The move by the Romney campaign crystallized an advantage Democrats and the White House seem to have won from the healthcare ruling, which came as something of a surprise to both parties.

As the dust settled Monday, Republicans struggled with the ambiguity of the court’s ruling and how to attack it. Democrats, meanwhile, proceeded unconcerned about whether the mandate is a tax or a penalty, and instead seized on the simple fact that it had been ruled constitutional and had now deeply divided the GOP.

That split, between Romney and congressional Republicans, was highlighted by a Monday television appearance by Romney senior campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, who argued on MSNBC that the mandate is a penalty, not a tax.

“That’s correct,” Fehrnstrom said when asked if he agrees with Obama that the individual mandate is not a tax.

“But the president also needs to be held accountable for his contradictory statements. He has described it variously as a penalty and as a tax. He needs to reconcile those two very different statements,” Fehrnstrom continued.

The statement was out of step with the recent arguments of other Republicans, who last week responded to the court ruling by deriding the health law as a tax and excoriating the president for breaking his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class.

“Ironically, the Supreme Court has decided to be far more honest about ObamaCare than Obama was,” Louisiana’s GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement. “They rightly have called it a tax. Today’s decision is a blow to our freedoms.”

Appearing Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) charged Obama with “hypocrisy.”

“The president on your show said this is not a tax. Then he sent his solicitor general to the Supreme Court to argue that it is a tax in order to get this past the Supreme Court,” Ryan said. “The broken promises and the hypocrisy are becoming breathtaking from the president who says one thing to get this past Congress and then another thing to get it past the Supreme Court.”

The Republican National Committee even put out T-shirts calling it a “BFTax,” a spin on Vice President Biden’s description of the healthcare law as a “big [expletive] deal.”

The comments represented another difficult moment for Fehrnstrom, who in March suggested Romney could reset “like an Etch A Sketch” after the primary election was over.

Sensing an advantage, Democrats seized on Fehrnstrom’s remarks, with the Democratic National Committee posting video on its YouTube page within the hour. 

Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod told The Washington Post that by decrying the individual mandate as a tax, Republicans were “sliming their own nominee.”

The approach by Romney’s campaign highlighted the difficult situation facing the GOP candidate on healthcare — something other Republicans had warned of during the primary fight. 

In March, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who at the time was neck and neck with Romney in the polls, said at a campaign stop in Wisconsin that Romney’s ties to healthcare make him “the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.”

As governor of Massachusetts, Romney instituted a healthcare law that includes an individual mandate, and at the time, he too portrayed it as a penalty or a fine, rather than a tax. On MSNBC, Fehrnstrom pointed out Romney “has consistently described the mandate in Massachusetts as a penalty.”

The decision to cast the mandate as a penalty could make it tougher for the Obama campaign to argue Romney raised taxes as governor of Massachusetts.

But the Republican strategist told The Hill that shouldn’t have mattered — the Romney campaign should’ve embraced the mandate as a tax and let the Obama campaign fight to get the message out about Romney’s record in Massachusetts.

“[The Obama campaign] was already saying [Romney had an individual mandate in Massachusetts], but that doesn’t mean he has to play into his weakness,” the strategist said. “He took that weakness and blew it up on a national scale. They should have let the Republican Party rally around it and let Obama make the Massachusetts charges. That’s the standard campaign play, and they did the opposite.”

The offices of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did not return email requests from The Hill asking if they intended to continue to portray the individual mandate as a tax, but the Republican strategist said he expects they will.

“They’re still going to talk about it as a tax,” he said. “But I think they’re confused, because they don’t want to run counter to what Romney is saying, and they’re definitely upset that they’re not all on the same page.”