Video of the Day: Top Romney Aide Says Mandate Is Not a Tax

Eric Fehrnstrom's statement that individual mandates are penalties, not taxes, undercuts a key Republican talking point since the Obamacare ruling.

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Corrected, July 3

Chief Justice John Roberts didn't give conservatives the outcome they wanted in the Affordable Care Act case, but he did hand Republicans an excellent talking point to attack President Obama by declaring the individual mandate a tax.

For some reason, the Romney campaign is trying to hand it back.

MSNBC's Chuck Todd managed to back top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom into a corner Monday morning, getting him to say that his boss does not believe the mandate is a tax, but is instead a penalty for "free riders" who don't want to buy insurance that helps subsidize the market. Here's a key portion:

Todd: The governor does not believe the mandate is a tax? That is what you're saying.

Fehrnstrom: The governor believes that what we put in place in Massachusetts was a penalty and he disagrees with the court's ruling that the mandate was a tax. But again...

Todd: But he agrees with the president that it is not -- and he believes that you shouldn't call the tax penalty a tax, you should call it a penalty or a fee or a fine?

Fehrnstrom: That's correct.

This is only the latest example of Romney's struggle to attack a plan that is basically identical to the one he instituted in Massachusetts. He had to contend with all the same arguments -- after all, nobody ever wants a new tax, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in power -- and has come up with most of the same answers that Obama has. He understandably doesn't want to say that he raised taxes as governor, but that means he has to either drop the tax attack against Obama or else just plainly contradict himself.

Now, here's a reality check: This Kinsley gaffe won't stop Romney's allies -- or, for that matter, his campaign -- from continuing to argue that Obama has passed a huge tax increase, perhaps one of the largest in memory (here's Derek Thompson on why that's not true). And Fehrnstrom is right that Obama has tried to play both sides of the tax/penalty debate. But this will help to dull attacks on the president for raising taxes, and the Obama campaign will have this clip ready whenever the matter comes up.

Regardless, it's surprising that Fehrnstrom, a Romney aide of longstanding, wasn't better prepared for this line of questioning, since the tax/penalty debate has been heated since Thursday and was a major topic for discussion on the Sunday shows. Fehrnstrom, you may recall, was the same aide who said in March -- also on MSNBC on CNN -- that Romney could "Etch a Sketch" the conservative positions he'd taken during the GOP primary. While MSNBC often seems to be in full propaganda mode against Republicans, it's Fehnrstrom's own words that do the most damage.

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David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers political and global news. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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