Republicans are bewildered by the Romney campaign’s declaration that the health care law’s individual mandate is not a tax. The GOP seized on the messaging opportunity handed to them by the Supreme Court, and immediately started trumpeting the idea that President Obama wasn’t just raising taxes — he was orchestrating the largest tax hike in American history. But a top Romney adviser threw water on that Monday, saying the mandate isn’t a tax. The RNC chairman then said Romney believes it is a tax.
Confused yet? 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. But, they believe, the disarray won’t affect down-ballot races, in which GOP candidates can still push the tax messaging.
“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.”
Gidley was often the public face for Santorum’s warnings that Romney would be caught in precisely this kind of health care mess if he became the nominee. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled and Romney’s campaign has already stepped on the GOP’s messaging, he says Santorum’s prophecy has come true.
“Here we are a couple months into the general and you’re going, ‘Hey wait a minute, that Rick Santorum was right,’” he said.
Democrats are certainly enjoying the “message dichotomy,” as Gidley put it. The party has sent out multiple press releases highlighting the differences between Republican leaders and their presidential nominee. But Gidley said Democrats who believe they’ve got Romney and the GOP on the run should be warned.
“Democrats are doing a dance in the street with the fact that the RNC and the Republican nominee are on different spin planes on this issue,” he said. “But when the dust settles, again, you’re just going to realize that Romney wants to repeal it and Obama doesn’t.”
Other Republican strategists agreed that the split on whether the mandate amounts to a tax is bad optics. But they said that Republicans candidates other than Romney — who don’t have the baggage of Romneycare to deal with — can still run on the tax messaging.
“It’s not as clean and on-message as Republican strategists might prefer,” said Jon McHenry, an unaligned D.C.-based GOP consultant and pollster. “But it’s a one-day, inside-the-Beltway, ‘what are these guys doing?’ story as opposed to taking the tax issue off the table for the next five months.”
Down ballot, the tax argument still works, McHenry said.
“[Senate] Democrats aren’t going to put Mitt Romney on air defending their position. They’re just not,” he said. “It’s more a missed opportunity for the Romney campaign than it is a detriment to other [GOP] campaigns.”
Another strategist agreed that Republicans are annoyed by the Romney campaign steering the focus away from the tax-based message, which strategists think has real legs.
“A lot of people think he’s trying to get too cute,” said the strategist.