Why Romney remains politically well-situated on Obamacare

Over the weekend, the Romney campaign endorsed the view that the Obamacare mandate does not impose a tax. This, of course, is President’s Obama’s campaign position, though not the position his lawyers took before the Supreme Court.

Scott says Romney’s position shows, among other things, that he is not the ideal candidate to don the mantle of opposition to Obamacare. That’s true, and always been true. Because Romney imposed an individual mandate in Massachusetts, there were always going to be limits on the lines of attack he could launch against Obamacare. Specifically, as I see it, Romney is limited to arguing that the Obamacare mandate is unconstitutional, that Obamacare goes too far in regulating the health insurance industry and ultimately the delivery of healthcare; and that Obamacare is fiscally irresponsible. As I argued here, Romneycare is largely immune to these arguments.

Given this state of play, it’s not clear that Romney loses anything additional by taking the position Obamacare does not impose a tax. Had Romney called it a tax, he still couldn’t criticize it as such. After all, he imposed the same kind of tax in Massachusetts. Moreover, if Romney agreed that the individual mandate imposes a tax, he would be on weak ground in arguing that it is unconstitutional – one of the three good arguments available to him notwithstanding Romneycare.

In any event, I think Romney is still well-situated politically when it comes to Obamacare. Out-and-out rejectionists will strongly favor Romney over Obama on this issue because Romney considers Obamacare unconstitutional and has promised to do what he can to repeal and/or nullify it. Those who like Obamacare will, of course, favor the President on this issue.

But there is a middle-ground sentiment on Obamacare. Many believe that serious reform is needed to extend health insurance coverage to a large portion of the uninsured, but think Obamacare goes too far. They don’t hate Obamacare the way rejectionists do, but they consider it misguided. These voters will tend to favor Romney on this issue because he has shown that he shares, and is prepared to act on, their goal of broader coverage, but opposes the excessive approach the Democrats have adopted.

For purposes of winning an election, there are worse places to be than near the middle.

JOHN adds: It seems to me that Romney has gotten something of a bad rap for his adviser’s statement that he doesn’t think the mandate is a tax. Romney has said that he agrees with the Scalia/Thomas/Alito/Kennedy opinion, which says that the mandate is not a tax and that Obamacare is unconstitutional. Romney has always said that Obamacare is unconstitutional, so he is being consistent; but, as Charles Krauthammer has said, on this issue consistency is not the cardinal virtue. I agree with Paul that the current sturm und drang will pass, and the bottom line is that those who dislike Obamacare will vote for Romney, who pledges to repeal it.