The Sunday shows were filled with a debate over one question: is the tax penalty in health care reform a tax or a penalty? Obama administration officials argued the latter; Republicans argued the former. Does it matter who's right, or is this silly political parsing? It's probably a little of both, actually.
Under the Affordable Care Act, if a consumer can afford insurance, he/she has to take responsibility for having insurance. If the consumer refuses, he/she will be subject to a tax penalty. The right wants to call that penalty a tax so that they can in turn argue, "Obama raised taxes on the middle class." It's deceptive -- and rather foolish -- but that's where things stand.
At least, it was where things stood before this morning, when the Romney campaign's chief advisor, Eric Fehrnstrom, told MSNBC's Chuck Todd that Republican rhetoric is wrong.
Fast forward to the 4:24 point, when Todd, unsure how to decipher Fehrnstrom's bizarre spin, tried to get a straight answer. It led to this exchange:
TODD: [Mitt Romney] agrees with the president that it is not [a tax], 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.
So, for three days, Republicans have said, "We should call the penalty a tax." This morning, the Romney campaign said, "No, we shouldn't."
This is a box the GOP can't get out of. Mitt Romney created an identical policy in Massachusetts under the identical structure for identical reasons. If Obama raised taxes on the middle class, then Romney raised taxes on the middle class. For Fehrnstrom, that means neither did.
But for Republicans, that's wholly unsatisfying. Indeed, the GOP message is an extraordinary mess, we now have the Romney campaign contradicting its own surrogates on the Republican Party's #1 talking point.
If the GOP finds this frustrating, maybe they should have thought of this during the primaries.