Mitt’s 4th of July flip-flop

He repudiates his own spokesman, calls the mandate a tax – and gets flayed by a mighty conservative media organ

Published July 5, 2012 11:09AM (EDT)

It’s probably not a coincidence that Mitt Romney waited for a holiday to repudiate a top aide’s remarks about the Supreme Court’s healthcare ruling and to declare that he does believe the individual mandate is a tax.

Romney’s comments came in an interview with CBS News’ Jan Crawford on Wednesday, two days after campaign press secretary Eric Fehrnstrom insisted that Romney considered the mandate a penalty or a fee – not a tax. Fehrnstrom’s statement put Romney at odds with his party, which has latched on to the court’s justification for upholding the mandate as a way to accuse Obama of imposing a massive tax hike on the middle class.

But Romney used his 4th of July interview with Crawford to strike a new tone.

“While I agreed with the dissent,” he said, “that’s taken over by the fact that the majority of the court said it’s a tax. And therefore it is a tax. They have spoken. There’s no way around that. You can try and say you wish they would have dissented a different way, but they didn’t. They concluded it’s a tax.

“That’s what it is, and the American people know that President Obama has broken the pledge that he made. He said he wouldn’t raise taxes on middle income Americans. Not only did he raise the $500 billion that was already in the bill, now it’s clear that his mandate as described by the Supreme Court is a tax.”

This should ease the frustration of Republicans who were frustrated at Romney’s initial frustration to follow their playbook, but it also creates a new problem for him, because the Massachusetts healthcare law he implemented in 2006 also contains a mandate.

This explains why it took Romney so long to formulate his position on the Supreme Court’s ruling; to call the Obama mandate a tax is to call the Romney mandate a tax. In his interview with Crawford, Romney tried to invent a loophole, claiming that state-level mandates don’t require Supreme Court approval, and therefore don’t need “to be called taxes in order for them to be constitutional.” We’ll see how that explanation sounds if and when President Obama presses the subject in a debate this fall.

Perhaps more worrisome for Romney is that his campaign’s slow and self-contradictory response to the Supreme Court’s ruling has upset one of the most powerful people in conservative media: Rupert Murdoch, whose company owns Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Murdoch raised eyebrows by tweeting earlier this week that Romney needed to rid his campaign team of “old friends” and replace them with “real pros.”

On Wednesday, the WSJ followed suit with a blistering editorial that said Romney’s team had “brought second political defeat” on itself by refusing to immediately jump on the “It’s a tax!” bandwagon. Nor was the WSJ impressed with Romney’s new position, opining that in his CBS interview he offered “no elaboration, and so the campaign looks confused in addition to being politically dumb. More broadly, the editorial flayed Romney for trying to “play it safe and coast to the White House by saying the economy stinks and it's Mr. Obama's fault.”

This is probably what’s at the heart of Murdoch’s frustration. With unemployment edging up in recent months and no signs of a sudden pre-November improvement on the horizon, there’s a clear opening for the GOP to unseat Obama and reclaim the White House. And yet, Romney continues to lag several points behind Obama in national polls. It’s too early to say that panic is setting in, but it will be interesting to see if other prominent Republicans begin publicly voicing similar concerns in the days ahead.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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