So what is it, a penalty or a tax?
For many Americans, that’s a stupid question. “Tax” and “penalty” have become synonymous. Chief Justice John Roberts and the Supremes might as well be singing about whether to pronounce neither or either with a long “e” or an “i.”
The Tax Foundation has calculated the average American has to work nearly to May each year just to retire what he or she owes to Washington, the State Capitol and City Hall.
Taxes may be the price we pay for a civilized society, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., said, but Holmes never bothered to question who sets the price, or why. To a lot of folks, the difference between a tax and a penalty depends solely on what you get in return. Which brings us to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
Chances are you’ve decided how you feel about it, without the chief justice’s help. Republicans don’t like Obamacare and Democrats do, with some notable exceptions.
But if you’re an independent … well, that’s why the definition has become such a hot political issue.
It’s a matter of perception. Political operatives know most of you pay scant attention to what’s going on. When Roberts said the Affordable Care Act was constitutional because its individual mandate was a tax, that gave Republicans a big talking point in simple, easy terms any casual voter could understand. Obama’s opponents already have made some commercials along those lines.
To many people, tax hikes are bad. Early on, Obama said again and again that the mandate was not a tax. That’s another simple sound bite Republicans can use. The president said it wasn’t, and there is footage of him saying it, but now we know it is.
The only trouble is, Mitt Romney imposed the same thing in Massachusetts when he was governor.
That’s why Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s strategist, went on a talk show Sunday and said Romney believes the court got it wrong. It isn’t a tax, it’s a penalty, he said.
Penalties are bad, too, right?
For Romney, Obamacare could be a John Kerry moment — he was for it before he was against it.
Except of course that it really isn’t his issue; it’s Obama’s. He pushed the Affordable Care Act through Congress. That means he raised taxes, on all of you, not just the people of Massachusetts.
Oddly enough, the court’s ruling did move the needle, just a little.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that the percentage who support Obamacare rose slightly, from 43 percent to 48 percent, after the decision. The most important number, however, concerns independents. Among them, opposition is at 62 percent. That’s less than before the ruling, as well, but it’s important during a year of political polarization. Independents could very well carry the day.
To them, what Romney says about the issue won’t matter much. It was Obama’s idea.
Nor does it matter much if it’s a penalty or a tax. Neither word is particularly pretty. The simple question is whether or not you decide you like Obamacare, or at least what you understand of it.