At the time, GOP’s Pavlovian response to the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act ruling was so predictable, it almost seemed worth ignoring.
But that was Thursday — political eons ago. In hindsight it seems like it was a pretty big error. Actually, it looks like amateur hour. It shouldn’t have taken Washington’s top Republican operatives more than a few minutes to recognize that attacking the mandate as a tax would put Mitt Romney in an even more uncomfortable position vis-a-vis the Affordable Care Act than he’s already in and, implicitly, give John Roberts and the Supreme Court a pass on the legal argument.
That strikes me, again in hindsight, as an obvious lose-lose.
Particularly given that the mandate was already unpopular back when it was a mere freedom-crushing experiment in socialism. And particularly when Republicans had a bunch of other taxes in ‘Obamacare’ that they could just as easily attack.
On a couple levels, the weird rift between Romney and the rest of the party makes sense. Congressional leaders have different imperatives. They want to trip up Democrats, they want to win majorities, and they’re under enormous pressure to build a legislative record that shows bipartisan opposition to key pieces of ‘Obamacare.’ From that arguably myopic perspective running with the tax attack makes some sense.
But my hunch is that the GOP prepared carefully for every Supreme Court contingency … except the one where the law gets upheld as an exercise of the taxing power. Here’s the RNC and the Romney camp taking a victory lap shortly after the decision came down. If they’d really prepared so well they wouldn’t be dancing around the cable nets with two left feet.
Romney’s health care history was always going to force the GOP into seriously contrived positions. But I’ll admit I didn’t imagine Rick Santorum’s primary argument — that Romney was “uniquely unqualified” to take on Obama and the ACA — would bear out so exquisitely.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.