If Mitt Romney loses his run for the White House, a turning point will have been his decision Monday to absolve President Obama of raising taxes on the middle class. He is managing to turn the only possible silver lining in Chief Justice John Roberts's ObamaCare salvage operation—that the mandate to buy insurance or pay a penalty is really a tax—into a second political defeat.
Appearing on MSNBC, close Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom was asked by host Chuck Todd if Mr. Romney "agrees with the president" and "believes that you shouldn't call the tax penalty a tax, you should call it a penalty or a fee or a fine?"
"That's correct," Mr. Fehrnstrom replied, before attempting some hapless spin suggesting that Mr. Obama must be "held accountable" for his own "contradictory" statements on whether it is a penalty or tax. Predictably, the Obama campaign and the media blew past Mr. Fehrnstrom's point, jumped on the tax-policy concession, and declared the health-care tax debate closed.
For conservative optimists who think Mr. Fehrnstrom misspoke or is merely dense, his tax absolution gift to Mr. Obama was confirmed by campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul, who tried the same lame jujitsu spin. In any event, Mr. Fehrnstrom is part of the Boston coterie who are closest to Mr. Romney, and he wouldn't say such a thing without the candidate's approval.
In a stroke, the Romney campaign contradicted Republicans throughout the country who had used the Chief Justice's opinion to declare accurately that Mr. Obama had raised taxes on the middle class. Three-quarters of those who will pay the mandate tax will make less than $120,000 a year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Romney high command has muddied the tax issue in a way that will help Mr. Obama's claims that he is merely taxing rich folks like Mr. Romney. And it has made it that much harder for Republicans to again turn ObamaCare into the winning issue it was in 2010.
Why make such an unforced error? Because it fits with Mr. Romney's fear of being labeled a flip-flopper, as if that is worse than confusing voters about the tax and health-care issues. Mr. Romney favored the individual mandate as part of his reform in Massachusetts, and as we've said from the beginning of his candidacy his failure to admit that mistake makes him less able to carry the anti-ObamaCare case to voters.
Mr. Romney should use the Supreme Court opinion as an opening to say that now that the mandate is defined as a tax for the purposes of the law, he will work to repeal it. This would let Mr. Romney show voters that Mr. Obama's spending ambitions are so vast that they can't be financed solely by the wealthy but will inevitably hit the middle class.
Democrats would point to the Massachusetts record, but Mr. Romney could reply that was before the Supreme Court had spoken, that he had promised Bay Staters not to raise taxes, and so now the right policy is to repeal the tax along with the rest of ObamaCare. 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.
Perhaps Mr. Romney is slowly figuring this out, because in a July 4 interview he stated himself that the penalty now is a "tax" after all. But he offered no elaboration, and so the campaign looks confused in addition to being politically dumb.
This latest mistake is of a piece with the campaign's insular staff and strategy that are slowly squandering an historic opportunity. Mr. Obama is being hurt by an economic recovery that is weakening for the third time in three years. But Mr. Romney hasn't been able to take advantage, and if anything he is losing ground.
The Romney campaign thinks it can play it safe and coast to the White House by saying the economy stinks and it's Mr. Obama's fault. We're on its email list and the main daily message from the campaign is that "Obama isn't working." Thanks, guys, but Americans already know that. What they want to hear from the challenger is some understanding of why the President's policies aren't working and how Mr. Romney's policies will do better.
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is assailing Mr. Romney as an out-of-touch rich man, and the rich man obliged by vacationing this week at his lake-side home with a jet-ski cameo. Team Obama is pounding him for Bain Capital, and until a recent ad in Ohio the Romney campaign has been slow to respond.
Team Obama is now opening up a new assault on Mr. Romney as a job outsourcer with foreign bank accounts, and if the Boston boys let that one go unanswered, they ought to be fired for malpractice.
All of these attacks were predictable, in particular because they go to the heart of Mr. Romney's main campaign theme—that he can create jobs as President because he is a successful businessman and manager. But candidates who live by biography typically lose by it. See President John Kerry.
The biography that voters care about is their own, and they want to know how a candidate is going to improve their future. That means offering a larger economic narrative and vision than Mr. Romney has so far provided. It means pointing out the differences with specificity on higher taxes, government-run health care, punitive regulation, and the waste of politically-driven government spending.
Mr. Romney promised Republicans he was the best man to make the case against President Obama, whom they desperately want to defeat. So far Mr. Romney is letting them down.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page 9
A version of this article appeared July 5, 2012, on page A10 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Romney's Tax Confusion.