When I originally wrote my column for today’s print edition on the political implications of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the mandate as a constitutional exercise of Congress’s taxing power, the Romney campaign’s public position was that the mandate was a penalty. Between the time of my deadline and the time the column went to press, however, Mitt Romney reversed his campaign’s position and said on CBS that the federal mandate was, in fact, a tax. At the same time, he strained to argue that the mandate he signed in Massachusetts was not a tax. The Wall Street Journal is out today with an editorial blasting Romney for running a terrible campaign. But what’s happening isn’t the campaign’s fault. No matter how brilliant the campaign staff is, they can’t change the fact that Romney championed and signed a health care law in Massachusetts that was remarkably similar to President Obama’s national health care law.
In April 2010, just weeks after the national health care law passed, I warned that if Republicans nominated Romney in 2012, it could kill the effort to repeal Obamacare, precisely because he wouldn’t be able to credibly attack Obama on health care. It’s something that I emphasized repeatedly during the primaries and discussed in my ebook on the Romney nomination. Had Republicans nominated any other GOP candidate, right now they’d be sitting back and watching Obama and his surrogates squirm in trying to explain why the mandate was a tax for legal purposes but still didn’t violate his middle class tax pledge. Instead, Romney’s struggles to reconcile the irreconcilable are complicating things.
All of this said, the current reality is that the only remaining hope of repealing Obamacare is for Romney to become president. Though Romney’s own efforts to attack the law will inevitably be weakened by his own past embrace of the mandate/regulate/subsidize approach to health care, there’s no reason why his sordid past on health care policy should become toxic to the entire Republican Party.
It’s inevitable that any Republican holding or seeking office who attacks Obamacare’s mandate as a tax will be asked whether the Massachusetts mandate signed by their own nominee is also a tax. They shouldn’t feel the need to defend Romney’s untenable position, or to squirm uncomfortably when asked. Republicans can agree with Romney on repeal without having to make excuses for what he did in Massachusetts. A good answer would be something along the lines of this: “You never find a candidate who you’re going to agree with 100 percent of the time. I disagree with mandates at both the federal and state level and don’t support the Massachusetts health care law. But I do agree with Romney that Obamacare is a disastrous law for all 50 states and that it needs to be repealed. And that’s why I support him.”
The bottom line is that Romney is stuck with Romneycare because he signed the law, but that doesn’t mean every Republican has to be, too.