Donald Lambro

Washington--The White House attack line this week against Mitt Romney is that he's now calling the punishing fine in the healthcare mandate a tax, a few days after he said it was a penalty.

While this is hardly one of the burning issues in the 2012 presidential election, President Obama's campaign strategists and his friends in the network news media, saw it as a chance to raise doubts about Romney consistency on the issues.

The economic growth rate is slowing down to barely a crawl, unemployment was still well over 8 percent, half of all college grads can't find work, and the Washington Post made the word debate its lead, front page story Thursday. The network news shows -- that have all but ignored the job crisis -- pounced on the story, too, declaring that this is a really important election issue.

I mean, come on, let's get real.

To be sure, the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling that upheld Obamacare clearly saw more than semantic differences in the word game. It ruled that the government couldn't force uninsured Americans to purchase a health care plan by slapping them with a nearly $700 yearly fine, er, penalty. Well, whatever.

The high court found nothing in the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause, that allowed the federal government to force Americans against their will to buy a product they didn't want, need, or, for that matter, could afford.

But five justices, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, did conclude that under the Constitution, Congress clearly had the power to levy taxes, and ruled that almost everyone who refused to buy insurance could be taxed to punish them for their intransigence.

So five out of nine members of the court declared the penalty a tax.

Romney did not do so in his initial response to the ruling because he agreed with the four dissenters that the law was unconstitutional under any circumstances. It didn't matter whether you called it a fine, a tax or a penalty, but he stuck with penalty because it was on that basis that the court said it would be unconstitutional.

But on rethinking his position, maybe calling it a tax was the stronger and more effective political position to take.

After all, Obama promised he would never raise taxes on anyone making less than $200,000 a year. Now, here he was flatly breaking his 2008 campaign pledge to lower income and middle class taxpayers.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.