In Defense of Eric Fehrnstrom

Conservative media is, if you'll pardon the 21st-century pun, all atwitter following Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom's interview with MSNBC's Chuck Todd in which Fehrnstrom said that Governor Romney believes the Obamacare "individual mandate" is a penalty rather than a tax.

Some analysts on the right are describing it as "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory" while Democrats think it's such a big deal that their "Rapid Response" team has posted the video of the interview to their YouTube channel (linked above.)

On the pages of the American Spectator, Jeff Lord suggests that Romney should "Take Eric Fehrnstrom Off Television."

No doubt Fehrnstrom's words seem counter-productive on the surface. And no doubt that to the extent they can be spun by the left or by the media (if you will pardon my redundancy) as undermining opposition to Obamacare, the words are counter-productive.

But if you actually listen to the relevant 90 seconds of the interview, a fair hearing of Fernstrohm suggests he was trying to make a different point: Governor Romney believes that the individual mandate is not a tax, and therefore that it is unconstitutional.

Fehrnstrom was clumsily reemphasizing that Mitt Romney agrees, as the candidate has said from within minutes of the Roberts' cave-in on Obamacare, with the Supreme Court's four dissenting Justices, namely that Obamacare should have been found entirely invalid.

(To be sure, Romney prefers the mandate not to be a tax because it it were one, that would allow Romney to be accused of having raised taxes in Massachusetts. Not the most important political argument of the day but nevertheless something he would rather avoid.)

What Romney should say is this: "If calling Obamacare a tax was the twisted logic required by the Supreme Court to uphold a law which based on its own language (not calling it a tax) would otherwise have been overturned as unconstitutional, then Republicans are perfectly justified using all legislative methods which apply to taxes to repeal this horrendous law. But just as the Court had to also say that it is not a tax in order to be able to hear the case in the first place, I continue to believe that the mandate is what the law's plain language says it is and what Democrats across the board have always said it is, a penalty, which the Supreme Court made clear would have been unconstitutional on that basis. In other words, whether you call it a tax or not, this assault on our nation's health care system and our liberty must go, and when elected I will do everything in my power to make sure it does."

A careful hearing of Fehrnstrom's words suggests this was the message he was trying to get across. He didn't do the best possible job, but neither were his words as undercutting of an anti-Obamacare message and movement as pundits on both sides of the political aisle are suggesting. Eric Fehrnstrom's real mistake was wording his thoughts in a way that they could be sliced and diced to his candidate's disadvantage. True, one would wish that the senior advisor to the Republican candidate for president would not make this mistake on such an important issue. But in this case, I say let he who has never slightly misworded his point, even an important point, cast the first stone.

Now that the blogosphere is crucifying Fehrnstrom and throwing smoke bombs to cloud and confuse the Romney campaign's position on this critical issue, Mitt Romney should offer a well-considered statement which reinforces his commitment to dismantling Obamacare while clarifying the basic point that Fehrnstrom was trying to make: Romney believes the mandate is not a tax and that therefore the entire law is unconstitutional, but if the Court wants to save the law by calling it a tax, well, he can play that game too.

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