The seemingly simple concept of an individual mandate to buy
health insurance has mutated into a complex political controversy that has
tied Mitt Romney's presidential campaign up in knots and has diverted
attention from the Republican presidential candidate's relentless focus on the
weak U.S. economy.
After years of denying that his own individual mandate in Massachusetts was a tax, Romney suddenly declared on Wednesday that Obama's mandate -- which was modeled after Romney's -- was really a tax. Romney contradicted his chief strategist, who said two days earlier that neither man's mandate was a tax. But the former Massachusetts governor continued to insist that his home-state mandate was not a tax.
The fumbling response has caused some prominent conservatives to publicly second-guess the quality of Romney's campaign and it's ability to deal with adversity. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, the bible of the economic right, declared Thursday that Romney and his staff are "squandering an historic opportunity" to reclaim the White House.
"The tragedy is that for the sake of not abandoning his faulty health-care legacy in Massachusetts, Mr. Romney is jeopardizing his chance at becoming president," the Wall Street Journal editorial concluded.
Some conservatives are harkening back to former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum's warning that Romney, because of his health-care record in Massachusetts, "would be the worst Republican in the country" to run against Obama.
And while most Republican strategists still believe Santorum's statement was a bit hyperbolic, they readily concede that Romney inartfully maneuvered himself into a lose-lose political corner. He could either alienate conservatives by maintaining his long-held position that an individual mandate does not equal a tax -- or risk looking like a flip-flopper on the sensitive subject of taxes.
In the end, Romney chose the route of inconsistency rather than endure a public drubbing from his fellow Republicans.
"The candidate was forced to clean up this mess after Hill Republicans, worried about their own re-election campaigns, privately threatened a mutiny," said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak, a former aide to Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. "Romney's campaign is walking a tightrope, and although they have a narrow but certain path to victory, their margin for error is small and shrinking."
Democrats, who had been playing defense for several months amid a floundering economy, have responded gleefully to the opening. Obama campaign press secretary Jen Psaki characterized Romney as a flip-flopping opportunist in thrall to "the Rush Limbaughs of the world."
Rebecca Acuna, spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party, said Romney "would argue that the earth is flat if he thought it would help his campaign."
"The fact that Romney favored the individual mandate and called it a penalty when he was governor is now an inconvenient truth," Acuna said. "The only logic Romney follows is whether or not something will help him politically."
For the time being, Romney is willing to take that kind of heat from Democrats and the pundit elite rather than alienating GOP true-believers.
"Romney's response is not consistent with either his experience as governor of Massachusetts or his own campaign spokesperson," said Rice University political scientist Robert Stein, "but it is consistent with the beliefs of Republican congressional leaders and that of core Republican voters. For now, this is the consistency that matters most to Gov. Romney."
Faced with a political dilemma, Texas A&M University political science professor George Edwards III says, Romney took the safer route.
"It is probably an advantage to have a unified (Republican) message and to criticize the president for raising taxes," Edwards said. "And he can refer to the Supreme Court for determining the proper noun to use, and thus avoid responding to the obvious criticism that he is inconsistent."
Romney's campaign remains confident that the controversy will blow over and the political focus will return to the economy, where a grim jobless report on Friday provided more political fodder for the GOP.
"The president's policies have not gotten America working again, and the president's gonna have to stand up and take responsibility for it," Romney said after the U.S. Labor Department released the latest unemployment numbers. "America can do better, and this kick in the gut has got to end."
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