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RNC Will Keep Calling Obamacare A 'Tax,' Despite Romney Campaign's Disagreement

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Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (C) talks with campaign advisors Stuart Stevens (L) and Eric Fehrnstrom on a chartered airplane in January. Fehrnstrom said Monday that Romney does not consider the individual mandate in President Obama's health care law to be a tax.  (Getty)
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (C) talks with campaign advisors Stuart Stevens (L) and Eric Fehrnstrom on a chartered airplane in January. Fehrnstrom said Monday that Romney does not consider the individual mandate in President Obama's health care law to be a tax. (Getty)

The Republican National Committee said Monday it will continue to refer to President Barack Obama's health-care law as a "tax," despite the fact that the party's presumptive nominee disagrees with them.

"The [Supreme] Court has deemed it a tax," said RNC spokesman Tim Miller.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion upholding the Affordable Care Act that the mandate in the law for individuals to obtain health insurance "may reasonably be characterized as a tax."

Obama, who said in 2009 that the mandate was "absolutely not a tax increase," has gone back and forth on the issue, said Miller.

"President Obama is at the height of hypocrisy," Miller said. "He told the American people it was not a tax, then when they realized it would be ruled unconstitutional, had the solicitor general argue in the Supreme Court it was a tax to get around the Commerce Clause, then celebrated the ruling that said it was a tax, and now is back to saying it was not."

But a top spokesman for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said earlier Monday that the former Massachusetts governor does not believe the Affordable Care Act mandate is a tax.

"The governor disagreed with the ruling of the court. He agreed with the dissent written by Justice [Antonin] Scalia which very clearly stated that the mandate was not a tax," said Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, in an interview with MSNBC's Chuck Todd.

Fehrnstrom's comment went against what some on his own campaign, the RNC and outside groups such as American Crossroads, have said. Since the Supreme Court delivered its ruling, the debate over what is a tax and what is a penalty has been dizzying.

In the hours after the ruling, senior members of Romney's own campaign told The Huffington Post that they would be able to campaign against Obama now using the tax description assigned by the court.

However, the Romney campaign -- with its shift away from the tax attack -- appears to be following its pattern of avoiding risk, avoiding controversy and making itself as small a target as possible.

Romney has a political interest in arguing that Obama's federal mandate is not a tax. As governor of Massachusetts, he signed a health-care overhaul into law in 2006 that included a penalty for those who did not obtain health insurance. So if the federal mandate is not a tax, then neither is the state mandate that Romney approved.

"The governor believes that what we put in place in Massachusetts was a penalty and he disagrees with the court's ruling that the mandate was a tax," Fehrnstrom said on MSNBC.

Fehrnstrom's comments set off an immediate flurry of press releases from Obama's reelection campaign and Democrats, who went out of their way to promote that Romney's campaign now agreed that Obama did not raise taxes in the health-care law. Privately, Republican operatives connected with the Romney campaign expressed displeasure and confusion about why Fehrnstrom made the remark.

American Crossroads, the political group founded by Karl Rove aiming to spend up to $300 million in this year's election, is already airing TV commercials attacking Democratic Senate candidates that refer to Obamacare as a tax.

And though Miller said the RNC will still call Obamacare a tax, there were some signs Monday that the national party group -- which since April has coordinated closely with the Romney campaign -- shifted gears away from the tax talking-point, despite Miller's statement that they would continue to attack Obamacare as a tax.

On Thursday, when the Supreme Court released its ruling, the RNC aggressively touted the part of the decision that referred to the ACA as a tax.

"The verdict is in – Obamacare is a tax on middle class Americans," RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski wrote in a press release to reporters about an hour after the ruling was released.

That messaging continued Friday.

In a conference call hosted by the RNC Friday morning, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal -- both considered potential vice presidential picks for Romney -- used the word "tax" or a variation of it 13 times.

"I do congratulate the Supreme Court on one thing, they were a lot more honest about Obamacare than President Obama has been, they have rightly called it what it is - a tax, and as Bob said one of the largest tax increases on middle class families in our country's history," Jindal said.

Kukowski sent 10 other e-mails or press releases to the press list between midday Thursday and midday Friday referring to Obamacare as a "tax." That flood stopped somewhat abruptly around noon on Friday.

And then RNC communications director Sean Spicer penned a nearly 500-word memo Friday -- which was sent to the press at 11 a.m. -- about the need to repeal Obamacare. He did not mention the word "tax" once.

However, on Sunday morning, RNC research director Joe Pounder sent out video clips of White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) denying that the Affordable Care Act includes a tax.

"It was painful," Pounder wrote, introducing the video clips, "watching the White House Chief Of Staff and House Democrat Leader struggle to explain how Barack Obama hasn’t broken his promise to not increase taxes on those making less than $250,000 now that ObamaCare has been ruled a tax."

And on Monday morning, Miller sent out a morning digest of news that the RNC wanted to highlight, with links to the Lew and Pelosi interviews. "The Democrats struggled on the Sunday shows to defend the Obamacare taxes on middle class Americans," Miller wrote.

A few minutes after that, Fehrnstrom went on MSNBC and made his comments.

A statement later in the day from Romney's Boston campaign headquarters made it clear that Fehrnstrom had been stating the candidate's official position. "Governor Romney thinks it is an unconstitutional penalty," e-mailed Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg. "What is President Obama's position: is his federal mandate unconstitutional or is it a tax?"

At least officially, the RNC is taking the opposition position, which marks an unusual break between it and the Romney campaign.

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