Reince Priebus (Brian Blanco/AP)On the issue of whether to call the individual mandate a "tax" or a "penalty," Republicans—like Democrats before last week's Supreme Court ruling—are trying to have it both ways. In a Tuesday morning interview, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus joined the conflicted chorus.
Appearing on CNN, Priebus insisted that, like Mitt Romney, he disagreed with Chief Justice John Roberts' ruling that the individual mandate was constitutional under Congress' power to tax, but that that disagreement would not stop Republicans from accusing President Barack Obama of hiking taxes.
"Even though I don't agree with it, and even though I agree with the dissent of that opinion, it doesn't mean that the truth is not the truth once the Supreme Court speaks," Priebus said. "And the Supreme Court has stated that Obamacare is a tax, and so since they have ruled that it's a tax, it is a tax."
So in election season attack ads—despite top Republicans' on-the-record statements to the contrary—party groups will call it a tax.
"Our position is the same as Mitt Romney's position. It's a tax," Priebus went on to say. "That's the only way the Supreme Court came up with the decision it did in order to make it constitutional; otherwise it would fail."
By ruling the mandate a "tax," Roberts handed a political gift to Republicans, who can use his language to slam Obama for raising taxes by passing the health care law. But Eric Fehrnstrom, chief strategist for Mitt Romney, said Monday that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee did not consider the mandate to be a "tax." (The reasons for this are varied, but while Romney was governor of Massachusetts, he championed a similar statewide measure and insisted it wasn't a tax either, so doing so now would have opened him up to charges of hypocrisy.)
In this case, Democrats are not entirely innocent, either. While Congress was debating the bill in 2010, Obama insisted that the individual mandate was not a tax, and the measure ultimately passed through both chambers. But while the president's solicitor general was defending the constitutionality of the case before the Supreme Court in March 2012, he expressly argued that it was a tax, in hopes that if the court found the mandate to be unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause, the taxing power could be used as a lifeline.