I have spoken before about the way politicians are adept at the old soft shoe. But they are also unintentional humorists as well and adept at double-talk. Mitt Romney is having one heck of a time attacking a plan he signed into law just six years ago in Massachusetts. His cronies in the Republican Party want to insist that the Affordable Care Act is a tax (which is what the Supreme Court recently ruled). Romney himself insists it’s not a tax but a “penalty,” and as such unconstitutional. Quoting veteran Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, a recent story in USA Today gives us some of the amusing details:
Romney called the mandate a tax in Massachusetts … so, I guess he said it was a tax before he said it isn’t a tax,” McKinnon said. “Meanwhile all other Republicans are calling it a tax. Sounds like message mayhem.”
Romney has walked a delicate line on the health care law that Democrats and his Republican primary opponents have said was modeled after the Massachusetts law.
The problem here is that Romney pushed hard for a similar (identical?) health plan in Massachusetts six years ago and it has proven quite successful “a model for the nation,” as Romney said at the time. In fact, it was so successful that it had the endorsement of people like Newt Gingrich and even Senator Jim DeMint a staunch Tea Party supporter. As DeMint said during Romney’s first bid for the Presidential nomination: “[Romney] has demonstrated. . .that he could work in a difficult partisan environment, take some good conservative ideas, like private health insurance, and apply them to the need to have everyone insured“[ Italics added]. Further, Robert Moffit, a policy expert at the right-wing Heritage group helped write parts of Romney’s health plan. Upon signing the bill in 2006, Romney said, in part, “The Republican approach is to say ‘You know what? Everybody should have insurance. They should pay what they can afford to pay. If they need help, we will be there to help them.'” So you can see the bind the Republicans are in: they want to get the voters riled up about “Obamacare” that is actually their own plan and one that has the support of many in the Republican hierarchy.
The solution to the dilemma so far, it seems, is to resort to verbal obfuscation: the mandate is a tax; it is also a penalty — one or the other, perhaps both, depending on whom you talk to. If the former it is constitutional, if the latter it is not — as far as we know. But I suspect in the end the official party line will be that the mandate that requires all Americans to have health insurance will be deemed a tax and it will be charged that Obama and the Democrats are responsible for piling a huge new tax burden on the American people at a time when thousands are out of work.
But this is verbal quibbling. The fact is that thousands of Americans who have no health insurance at present simply go to the emergency room when they are critically ill and many of them never pay a cent. That cost, in the billions of dollars, is passed along to those who do have health insurance. That’s why Romney wanted to push for his health care bill in Massachusetts in the first place: the uninsured were costing the citizens of Massachusetts “about a billion dollars a year to compensate hospitals for treating uninsured patients who didn’t pay their bills (New Yorker, June 6, 2012). This was considerably more than they would have to pay with the mandate required by the new bill. One can predict that this critical fact will be glossed over in the political debates by those who have learned that shouting “higher taxes” at this time of the year is sure to garner votes in November. It’s how the political game is played: truth is not the issue; votes are the ONLY thing that matters.
[Update: After this was written, Romney announced that the mandate is indeed a tax. He is now on board with the rest of his party as expected!]