Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has opened himself up to a new level of criticism around the issues of health care reform and the individual mandate. It has been a contentious and polarizing topic, which has further heated up since the Supreme Court ruled that Obamacare is constitutional.
When Romney should have been celebrating the United States’ 236th birthday, he instead spent part of his Fourth of July in an exclusive interview with CBS News. In his interview, Romney amounted the individual mandate, a requirement that every American must have health insurance, to a tax. “The Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation, and it said that it’s a tax, so it’s a tax,” Romney told CBS News. “They have spoken. There’s no way around that.”
The Obama campaign pounced on Romney’s health care flip flop, claiming it to be a stark contradiction to his campaign’s previous statements. On Monday morning, one of Romney’s top aides said “[Romney] disagrees with the court’s ruling that the mandate was a tax” and a campaign news release called Obamacare’s individual mandate an “unconstitutional penalty.”
Now that Romney has changed his view of the mandate from a penalty to a tax, he has further aligned himself with the dominant Republican Party message: Obama is imposing a burdensome new tax on middle class Americans by requiring health insurance. He has now joined in line with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), both of whom have vocally criticized the law as a large tax increase for all Americans.
So while Romney has cleared up any potential party line challenges about the individual mandate as a tax, he has also opened himself up to claims that he approved a similar tax increase. As governor of Massachusetts, he supported the 2006 passage of a plan, the first in the country, which requires nearly every Massachusetts resident to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty.
The Obama campaign and former Romney health care advisers claim "Romneycare" and "Obamacare" are identical. Meanwhile, Romney has attempted to distinguish between Obamacare as a tax and Romneycare as a penalty. In his CBS interview, Romney said that he and the Massachusetts legislature described the law as a penalty, “The chief justice in his opinion made it very clear that at the state level, states have the power to put in place mandates. They don't need or require them to be called taxes in order for them to be constitutional, and as a result, Massachusetts' mandate was a mandate, was a penalty, was described that way by the Legislature, and by me, and so it stays as it was."
Romney’s health care flip flop plays to a much larger issue he has been facing through the election campaign – his attempts to reach to a broad support base without alienating his conservative base. The individual mandate debate helped launch the Tea Party into national spotlight, with staunch conservatives calling the mandate an overreach of federal power and an infringement of civil liberties. However, Romney’s more liberal positions on health care, abortion and gay rights have left some suspicious about his ability to fully mobilize the conservative base.
The coming weeks will be critical in determining how Romney positions himself on these key social issues, as well as the United States’ economy and foreign policy issues. One thing is for sure: if he keeps changing up party positions, the Obama campaign will be quick to point out his flaws and show his inability to remain decisive.