It's always been a challenge for Mitt Romney to explain the differences between Romneycare and Obamacare. The two programs share a lot of the same features -- mandate, penalties, subsidies, exchanges and others. Romney has consistently argued that those provisions are acceptable, even good, at the state level, but not acceptable, and in some cases not even constitutional, at the federal level.
The problem isn't just that Romney frequently finds himself making detailed explanations, which is never a good thing in politics. The problem is that it always sounds a little odd to voters for Romney to say that when he did it in Massachusetts, it was a great thing, but when Barack Obama did it nationwide, it was a terrible thing.
Now, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision, Romney's job has gotten even harder -- so hard that there will likely be growing pressure on him to admit that Romneycare, his signature achievement as Massachusetts governor, was a mistake.
The problem is the court's ruling that Obamacare's individual mandate is a tax. Even though most Republicans had wanted to see Obamacare struck down, many embraced the mandate-is-a-tax ruling because it allowed them to accuse the president of raising taxes.
Romney, however, did not jump on the bandwagon, and the reason was Romneycare. If Romney denounced Obama's mandate as a tax, then what about the mandate he imposed in Massachusetts?
On July 2, top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told MSNBC that Romney did not believe the mandate is a tax, that it is instead a penalty. That wasn't a gaffe; Fehrnstrom was accurately stating Romney's position. But his words created controversy after Democrats and the press pointed out the gulf between Romney and other Republicans.
So on July 4, Romney himself came forward to clear things up. "The Supreme Court has the final word, and their final word is that Obamacare is a tax," he told CBS News' Jan Crawford. "So it's a tax."
When Crawford asked whether that meant Romneycare's mandate was also a tax -- and thus whether the former governor had raised taxes in Massachusetts -- Romney said no. The court made a distinction between a mandate imposed by a state and one imposed by the federal government, he explained: Obama's is a tax, and mine isn't.
The court didn't actually say it quite so clearly, but there's no doubt Romney and the Massachusetts legislature had the authority to impose an individual mandate in the state. The bottom line for this election, however, is that Romney is making another fine, legalistic distinction so he can keep vowing to repeal Obamacare while at the same time defending Romneycare.
Meanwhile, Obama himself is being cagey on what to call his mandate, afraid to agree with the court for fear that it would give Republicans an opening to say he raised taxes. Recently his spokesman said the mandate is "under the section of the law that is the tax code," but is not a tax. Imagine how Republicans could tear that one up -- if only the GOP candidate hadn't passed a mandate of his own.
The tension has gotten so great that some conservative voices have had enough. In a scathing editorial on July 5, The Wall Street Journal wrote that Romney "favored the individual mandate as part of his reform in Massachusetts, and as we've said from the beginning of his candidacy his failure to admit that mistake makes him less able to carry the anti-Obamacare case to voters."
"The tragedy," the Journal continued, "is that for the sake of not abandoning his faulty health care legacy in Massachusetts, Mr. Romney is jeopardizing his chance at becoming president."
This is not an entirely fixable problem. Romney can't change his record, and Obamacare won't stop being an issue. But could Romney at least partially reconcile the two by admitting that Romneycare was a bad idea?
It would certainly make Romney's case more consistent; he could promise to end Obamacare without also having to explain himself. He would also bring his position in line with that of most Republican voters. But it might also be an unmitigated disaster, the most damaging flip-flop ever for a candidate known to change positions.
In the end, it's almost impossible to imagine Romney would do it. When he talks about health care, there's always a certain bravado -- he has said he just can't wait to engage Barack Obama in a one-on-one debate over health care -- that conceals the weakness of his position. He's come too far to back down now, and odds are he will win or lose without ever admitting that Romneycare was the wrong thing to do.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.