Romney in the penalty box


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney with his wife Ann during the July Fourth parade in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. The Romney's took a break from their vacation to march in the parade.


Kayana Szymczak

Poor Mitt Romney has had a really bad holiday week. Not only was he sternly rebuked by the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, ridiculed for his jet-ski vacation on Lake Winnipesaukee, and had his record at Bain Capital savagely assailed by yet another Obama attack ad. He has lost the respect of my hairdresser.

“If only he would learn to think before he opens his mouth,” moaned Linda, as she snipped away at my sun-bleached locks. “I just cannot watch this campaign any more.”

Up until a few months ago, Linda was one of Romney’s biggest fans. A tough, smart woman who has worked hard to build a business in a very competitive field, she respected the candidate’s financial savvy, and hoped he might relieve her of what she sees as the overly onerous regulations imposed by the current administration.

She reserves special bile for President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, recently upheld by the US Supreme Court.

“I do not want the federal government in my pocket over health insurance,” she said.

But isn’t the Massachusetts law much the same? I asked. The one, incidentally, that was put into force by her erstwhile hero?

“Well, yeah, I guess,” she said, shrugging.

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The Massachusetts health-care plan, signed into law in 2006 by then Governor Romney, served as the template for “Obamacare,” and has become Mitt’s biggest headache. It is difficult to attack the president for doing, on a grander scale, what the Republican candidate did with such fanfare just six years ago.

It is also the main reason for the WSJ’s scathing critique on Thursday’s editorial page.

In the piece, which was titled “Romney’s Tax Confusion,” the august bastion of conservatism did not mince words:

“If Mitt Romney loses his run for the White House, a turning point will have been his decision Monday to absolve President Obama of raising taxes on the middle class. He is managing to turn the only possible silver lining in Chief Justice John Roberts's ObamaCare salvage operation — that the mandate to buy insurance or pay a penalty is really a tax — into a second political defeat.”

The WSJ was extremely unhappy with Romney’s position on the Supreme Court decision — or positions, as it has turned out. Immediately following the announcement last Thursday that the court had upheld the core of the act, the individual mandate, Romney’s campaign issued a statement saying that the candidate did not agree with the majority’s opinion that the penalty to be paid by those who declined to purchase insurance boiled down to a tax.

Romney’s problem is obvious: He had instituted the same individual mandate in Massachusetts, while promising not to raise taxes.

“The governor disagreed with the ruling of the court. He agreed with the dissent written by Justice Scalia which very clearly stated that the mandate was not a tax,” said Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, in an interview with MSNBC on Monday. “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.”

By Wednesday, however, Romney seemed to sense that disagreeing with the court might have been a bit hubristic, so he did a quick about-face.

More Highway '12: Health care decision leaves Americans divided

"The Supreme Court has spoken, and while I agreed with the dissent, that's taken over by the fact that the majority of the court said it's a tax, and therefore it is a tax. They have spoken. There's no way around that," Romney told CBS News in an interview on the Fourth of July.

This opened the presumptive nominee to charges of “flip-flopping,” and it did nothing to cool the WSJ’s ire.

“[T]he campaign looks confused in addition to being politically dumb,” concluded the editorial writer, going on to accuse Romney and his staff of “squandering an historic opportunity.”

Romney retreated to his summer home in New Hampshire to lick his wounds, but found little relief. He was photographed with wife Ann enjoying Lake Winnipesaukee, and the Obama campaign promptly pounced. The WSJ had a few things to say about that, too:

“[T]he Obama campaign is assailing Mr. Romney as an out-of-touch rich man, and the rich man obliged by vacationing this week at his lake-side home with a jet-ski cameo.”

In the end, though, it might be Romney’s own lightening-like reversals that sink him in the eyes of voters.

Geoff, a young paramedic in Wrentham, Massachusetts, describes himself as a conservative. But when asked whether he planned to vote for Romney in November, he shook his head.

“I just don’t see it,” he said. “The guy changes his mind too much.”

This does not mean that Geoff will switch his vote to Barack Obama, however. More likely he will stay at home, or look for other options.

“Who else is running, do you know?” he inquired.

Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson will be on the ballot, although he is unlikely to get much of a following.

For Linda the hairdresser, her heart lies elsewhere.

“We need another Reagan,” she sighed, referring to the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan, highly esteemed by conservatives everywhere. “I mean, we have just got to find someone who has a pair, you know what I mean?”