- Romney now says health care mandate is a tax but only federally
- Conflicting messages, staff frustrate some high powered supporters
- Democrats rush to paint Romney as a flip flopper
- Voters unlikely to care about confusing legal jargon on health care
Mitt Romney's course correction on whether the health care mandate is a tax puts him in line with Republicans who have pinned hopes for winning down-ballot races in part on hammering President Barack Obama for imposing what they've called the biggest tax in the nation's history.
But amid criticism of Romney's campaign as muddled and clumsy, the messaging shift could also cement Romney's image as a flip-flopper, political experts say.
"If Romney pushes hard the same meme the GOP leaders are pushing, he looks like a complete flip-flopper," Norm Ornstein, a veteran political analyst and author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism," said before Romney revealed his position in interviews on Wednesday. "He'd rather now have the health issue fade. This is not helpful to him."
It's exactly the kind of criticism former Republican presidential rival Rick Santorum lobbed at Romney during the primaries.
"He glosses over and doesn't even tell the truth...," Santorum said of Romney during a forum in Troy, Michigan, on February 25. "Here is a guy who is the ultimate flip-flopper running for president, and he's attacking me for not being principled? That doesn't wash."
In the wake of the Supreme Court's upholding Obama's health care reform law last week on the basis that Congress has the power to collect taxes, Romney said he disagreed with the majority opinion of the court, but he said the decision affirmed that Obama had broken a promise not to impose more taxes on the middle class. On Monday, top Romney campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said that Romney didn't believe the mandate was a tax.
Two days later at a Fourth of July event, Romney said the Supreme Court ruled the mandate is a tax and it had the final word. But he also said of a similar provision in Massachusetts, where he signed a similar health care reform measure into law as governor, the mandate wasn't so much a tax as a penalty.
With polls showing most Americans' minds are made up on the health care law, experts also question whether an argument over an arcane point of law that confuses most people is a winning strategy or lost on most.
"I think this 'tax-vs.-penalty' debate must be really exciting and interesting for law students, professors and lawyers but is just semantical BS for everyone else," said Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
In the politics of perception, Romney's semantics gymnastics is landing flat.
"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," the Wall Street Journal wrote Thursday in a scathing editorial which took Romney to task for squandering his shot at the White House by not disavowing "his faulty health-care legacy in Massachusetts."
Rupert Murdoch, CEO of NewsCorp, which publishes the Wall Street Journal and owns Fox News, was similarly unimpressed.
"Met Romney last week. Tough O Chicago pros will be hard to beat unless he drops old friends from team and hires some real pros. Doubtful," Murdoch tweeted on Sunday, referring to Obama's Chicago political advisers.
The next day he responded to criticism from Romney supporters.
"Romney people upset at me! Of course I want him to win, save us from socialism, etc but should listen to good advice and get stuck in!"
Former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch weighed in on Twitter with his own worries.
"Hope Mitt Romney is listening to Murdoch advice on campaign staff..playing in league with Chicago pols..No room for amateurs."
The Romney campaign offered a measured response to the criticism.
"Gov. Romney respects Rupert Murdoch and also respects his team and has confidence in them," spokeswoman Andrea Saul wrote Tuesday.
The moguls' public grievances give voice to the fears of some Republicans that Romney's temperature testing and delayed response on such critical issues as health care add to confusion within the caucus.
Romney waited several days to comment on Obama's announcement that he would defer for two years the deportation of people younger than 30 who came to the country before they turned 16, as long as they weren't a security threat, were in school or served in the military.
"I think most of my members are interested in learning what Gov. Romney has to say about this issue, and we're going to withhold judgment, most of us, until that time," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters after the policy announcement.
Democrats blasted Romney for supporting a student loan interest rate extension when he'd previously backed House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's proposed cuts to the federal Pell Grant program.
Democrats and progressives are also running with the idea of Romney as flip-flopper.
Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation and a self-described progressive, tweeted on Thursday that Romney's tax messaging makes "that Etch a Sketch look downright steady, stable and full of integrity," referring to a statement Fehrnstrom made during the primaries that Romney's campaign could "shake it up and restart all over again" for the general election after his more conservative GOP rivals had forced him to the right.
In either case, the political ping-pong match over whether a tax is a tax or a penalty is likely to go over most voters' heads, political experts say.
"Attitudes toward this law were formed several years ago, the battle lines set, whether people like it or not factored to the pro- and anti-Obama stock prices years ago," Cook said. "None of this matters. No one is listening."