In the wake of the Supreme Court decision to uphold the 'Obamacare' mandate under Congress's taxing power, Democrats are unifying behind a message to refute the GOP contention that they raised taxes on the middle class.
The Dems' response: No, we didn't. We simply punished freeloaders. Just as Mitt Romney did.
"It's not a tax on the American people," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press." "It's a penalty for free riders."
"The massive so-called tax increase they're talking about is the freeloader penalty," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said on CBS' "Face The Nation, "which would affect at most 1-2 percent of people that could afford health care and instead want to be freeloaders on the rest of us with uncompensated care."
The fine for noncompliance with the requirement to purchase health insurance would hit 4 million people, or just over 1 percent of the population, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Republicans have nevertheless sought to paint the law as a massive tax hike on working people. On Fox News Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the Supreme Court "unearthed the massive deception that was practiced by the president and the Democrats, constantly denying that it was a tax."
The theory behind the provision is that when uninsured people use health care resources, they're often unable to pay for them, so they end up passing the costs on to taxpayers. The mandate is an effort to force those individuals to pay upfront.
"This penalty says you cannot be a free-rider," White House chief of staff Jack Lew told Fox News.
The messaging shift comes late for Democrats, who did not get behind a compelling rationale for the individual mandate during the health care reform debate. That left the field wide open for Republicans to attack it as an egregious violation of personal liberty.
But it was Romney who pioneered the anti-freeloader argument, when defending the individual mandate at the heart of the health care plan he enacted as governor of Massachusetts.
"Using tax penalties, as we did, or tax credits, as others have proposed, encourages 'free riders' to take responsibility for themselves rather than pass their medical costs on to others," Mitt Romney wrote in a 2009 USA Today op-ed.
In mid-2009, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the top Republican on the Finance Committee, told Fox News, "But there is a very important issue here, and that is that we consider that there are some people who can afford their own health insurance but decide not to buy it because they want to pay it out of pocket. Should you require those people to do it? I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates."
Democrats are happy to credit Romney, making things awkward for Republicans.
"The penalty is on people who have the wherewithal but refuse to buy health insurance, figuring they won't be sick and if they do, other people will have to cover it," Pelosi said. "So these free riders -- as they were identified by Governor Romney himself, he said that people who have the ability to pay and don't can't expect to be free riders. And I think he had it exactly right."