When the Supreme Court ruled a week ago (wow -- was it really just a week ago?) that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, it took very little time for influential conservatives to seize upon Roberts's justification that the penalty for non-compliance could be interpreted as a tax. I mean VERY little time -- certainly within an hour, and I believe it was just a few minutes after the ruling that local talk-show host Michael Graham tweeted "Looking forward to watching Obots celebrate their tax hike!" He was not alone by any means.
Rush et al were railing about the "largest tax hike in the history of the world" that afternoon, and elected GOP officials great and small were parroting the talking point.
Not Mitt Romney and his team, however. Many assume his reticence to employ the Rush-approved tax cudgel was due to the inconsistency of having steadfastly defended the same thing as not a tax when he did it in Massachsuetts. But come on, that doesn't stop the Mittster.
More likely, in my opinion, the intensely data-driven Romney campaign had good numbers showing that suddenly attacking "ObamaCare" as a tax would do no good at all, politically. That wouldn't surprise me at all. While it's true that conservatives have, from time to time, publicly argued that Obamacare is a tax, they haven't done it in any big, sustained way that the general, non-Obama-hating public noticed. So, to them, crying "tax!" now is just, I don't know, maybe the eleventh argument the Republicans have trotted out, following on the heels of "it's too complicated" (remember that wacky flow chart?); "it will force you off your current provider"; "it will result in rationing" (including the dreaded death panels); "it will add trillions to the debt"; "it was written and passed in secret"; "it was passed via illegal legislative maneuvers"; "it included corrupt backroom deals" (Cornhusker kickback, etc.); "it was too many pages"; "it robs from Medicare"; and "the individual mandate unconstitutionally robs our liberties."
If you haven't found some reason in all that to be against ACA by now, it seems unlikely to me that you'd be scared off by the re-terming of a penalty nobody is paying now and very few people imagine themselves ever paying, even if they actually take the time to understand what the hell the tax-shouters are even talking about.
So, I'm guessing the Romney people knew, or strongly suspected, that making a big stink about the ACA as a tax would gain them nothing, while distracting the campaign from the debate they want to be having.
Problem is, Romney and his campaign couldn't control the movement-conservative marketplace. That marketplace really needed to feed its customers' outrage once the decision came down. Hating on Chief Justice Roberts wasn't going to go very far.
But taxes! Movement-conservative marketplace consumers are always ready to be outraged over taxes -- and are always ready to believe that taxes is a great political issue.
Now, you might say: "Well, but surely the Romney campaign could have reached out and spread word that this approach would be unhelpful." Sorry, but as I've discussed many times, this is a marketplace that responds to what sells, not what makes political sense -- and in fact, I have long argued that the most influential people in that market understand that they are much better off when Republicans lose elections. (Note the current Best Seller List for evidence.)
When that conservative market speaks, conservative elected officials and candidates follow along, because that's where the votes are in their districts; and their leaders like Mitch McConnell follow along because their members need them to -- and because for some reason they continue to think that people like Luntz and Morris are worth listening to.
And when you have all the Republicans and their voters on one set of talking points, and their party's new leader off on a different set, you've got a problem. And that's what's happened to Romney, and why he had to try to dance back into some level of concurrence on the tax thing.
Not enough for the right, of course. The buzz today is about the smackdown delivered to Romney by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which is usually a good barometer of the intersection between the movement-conservative marketplace and the GOP.
The Journal demands that Romney lead the charge against Obama on the newly-discovered ACA tax, and while he's at it lay out specifics on a range of other issues that Romney would be a fool to put forward in early summer, if at all. (Romney probably wants to offer few policy specifics at all, but he certainly wants to A) release them on his own timetable for political impact, and B) wait until near the late-August/early-September conventions to assess the economic conditions and mood of the country for the fall campaign.)
Romney was forced to dance a similar dance when the President announced his new immigration policy, and to a certain extent when Obama made his same-sex marriage policy switch. It will happen many more times over the course of the campaign -- because he will be running one way, and his party, led by its masters in the movement-conservative marketplace, will be running another.