The story behind the semantics debate


The Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Affordable Care Act was bound to cause extensive discussion, but the debate of the last several days has been oddly detached from what matters most.

The questions that seem to have the most relevance relate to Medicaid expansion, the future of the Commerce Clause, the positions of Republican governors, the extremism of the four dissenters, the threats to the law in 2013, etc. But the topic that’s dominating the political world is the unexpected rhetorical fight launched by Republicans: should we call the tax penalty that would apply to 1% of the population a “tax” or a “penalty”?

This morning, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus took a side, but did so in a bizarre way.

For those who can’t watch clips online, Priebus told CNN, “Well, our position is the same as Mitt Romney’s position – it’s a tax.”

Oh, for crying out loud.

Look, this is, at its root, a semantics debate. Going forward, what label gets applied to this policy has no bearing on the law itself, legal or otherwise. Republicans desperately want to scream from rooftops that Democrats, by imposing this penalty on free riders, raised middle class taxes, so we’ve been subjected to five days (and counting) of an irrelevant argument.

But if we’re going to have this semantics argument, we should at least pretend reality matters. Literally just yesterday, the Romney campaign said it’s a penalty, not a tax. This morning, the chairman of the RNC told a national television audience, “[O]ur position is the same as Mitt Romney’s position – it’s a tax.” Huh?

And this disconnect is why I think the story has any salience at all. I don’t much care about the semantics, but I care quite a bit about the fact that the Republican Party and the Republican presidential nominee are, quite openly, at odds with one another over a key GOP talking point.

TPM had a good report on the behind-the-scenes tensions today.

Republicans are bewildered by the Romney campaign’s declaration that the health care law’s individual mandate is not a tax…. Republican strategists told TPM that far from the unified voice the GOP said it would present after the Supreme Court ruling, the messaging has been chaotic, and ultimately embarrassing for Romney and the GOP. […]

“It’s a problem, I’m not going to lie,” said Hogan Gidley, a former top adviser to Rick Santorum’s campaign. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it, it’s a problem for the Republicans.”

As we discussed yesterday, this is a box the GOP can’t get out of. When it comes to attacking “Obamacare” and the mandate, there’s no getting around the fact that 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 the Romney campaign, that means neither did. For every other Republican, that means both did.

You can almost hear Rick Santorum whispering, “I told you so.”

Romneycare, Affordable Care Act, Obamacare and Mitt Romney

The story behind the semantics debate