When lawyers were arguing ObamaCare before the Supreme Court, Obama’s attorney’s claimed ObamaCare was a tax, while everyone else’s attorneys claimed that it was an unconstitutional penalty. Justice Roberts, for reasons unknown but still deeply suspect, agreed with both arguments. Things got exciting after that.
In the days since the opinion came down, both the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign have been running away from the “tax” word. Obama’s retreat is obvious: no campaigning president wants to be known as the one who presided over the largest single middle-class tax increase in history. Romney’s campaign ought to be making hay with that fact.
Except that, until yesterday, Romney’s campaign was also denying that ObamaCare is a tax and was claiming, instead, that it’s a penalty. The reason seems to be that Romney’s advisors are worried that, because Romney presided over RomneyCare, he’s living in a glass house when it comes to imposing massive tax increases. For him, the phrase “tax increase” is a dangerous tar baby. Romney eventually decided that he couldn’t afford to be this cautious and, on July 4th, finally said that, if the Supreme Court calls it a tax, it’s a tax.
Whether ObamaCare is a tax matters tremendously for its Constitutionality. By waving his magic tax wand, Chief Justice Roberts ensured that ObamaCare lives on under the government’s taxing power. I would argue, though, that the average man in the street is tuning out as this semantic argument goes on. He doesn’t care about the label. He’s probably more interested in the on-the-ground reality: ObamaCare authorizes the government to sic the IRS, with its full arsenal of scary, coercive powers, on people who don’t want to buy an expensive product.
If Romney and his guys could just cut the word play and get to the heart of the matter, they’d be able to make it clear to people that, whether it’s a tax or a penalty, they’re caught squarely in the government’s cross-hairs — and Romney promises to take away that big government gun.
I’ll leave this post with two popular culture moments that seem appropriate. First, one of my favorite quotes from Through the Looking-Glass:
`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. `They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs, they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’
`Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice `what that means?`
`Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. `I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’
`That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.’
And, second, a little music to remind us that, much as I love words, sometimes they are indeed sick-making: