(CBS News) Amid ongoing debates over the semantics of a measure in President Obama's Affordable Care Act - and whether a fee some Americans will have to pay if they choose not to buy health insurance under the law qualifies as a "tax" or a "penalty" - Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is taking heat even from some conservative voices over his changing position on the matter.
In an editorial in Thursday's newspaper, the Wall Street Journal blasted what it cast as Romney's "tax confusion" and accused him of "squandering an historic opportunity" to gain ground against Mr. Obama in the presidential race.
"If Mitt Romney loses his run for the White House, a turning point will have been his decision Monday to absolve President Obama of raising taxes on the middle class," reads the editorial in the conservative newspaper. "He is managing to turn the only possible silver lining in Chief Justice John Roberts's ObamaCare salvage operation--that the mandate to buy insurance or pay a penalty is really a tax--into a second political defeat."Romney clarifies health care mandate position
After last week's landmark Supreme Court decision upholding President Obama's health care law, Romney broke with Republicans and sided instead with the Obama administration, insisting that the fee is a "penalty" rather than a tax. The former Massachusetts governor passed a similar health care law during his gubernatorial tenure, which included an individual mandate analogous to the one under scrutiny in the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act. If Romney were to concede that Mr. Obama's law included a tax on the middle class, it could be inferred that he too had taxed his constituents while Massachusetts governor.
Republicans, however, were eager to capitalize on the notion that Mr. Obama's health care law equated to a tax on the middle class.
"Why make such an unforced error?" asks the WSJ. "Because it fits with Mr. Romney's fear of being labeled a flip-flopper, as if that is worse than confusing voters about the tax and health-care issues. Mr. 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."
On Wednesday, amid discontent from the GOP over his stated position on the issue, Romney attempted to clarify his position in an interview with CBS News' Jan Crawford.
"The Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation, and it said that it's a tax, so it's a tax," Mr. Romney told Crawford on Wednesday. "They have spoken. There's no way around that."
Romney also argued in the interview that on the state level, such a mandate still qualifies as a penalty, not a tax - which theoretically would shield him from the same criticism Republicans are now lobbing at the president.
"The chief justice, in his opinion, made it very clear that at the state level, states have the power to put in place mandates," he said. "They don't need to require them to be called taxes in order for them to be constitutional. And as a result, Massachusetts' mandate was a mandate, was a penalty, was described that way by the legislature and by me. And so it stays as it was."
According to the Journal, Romney's shift in position only exacerbated the notion that his campaign is "confused" and "politically dumb."
"For the sake of not abandoning his faulty health-care legacy in Massachusetts, Mr. Romney is jeopardizing his chance at becoming President," the editorial reads. "Perhaps Mr. Romney is slowly figuring this out, because in a July 4 interview he stated himself that the penalty now is a 'tax' after all. But he offered no elaboration, and so the campaign looks confused in addition to being politically dumb."
Romney, the article argues, is "squandering" his opportunity to use the U.S. economy against Mr. Obama.
"This latest mistake is of a piece with the campaign's insular staff and strategy that are slowly squandering an historic opportunity," it says. "Mr. Obama is being hurt by an economic recovery that is weakening for the third time in three years. But Mr. Romney hasn't been able to take advantage, and if anything he is losing ground."
Read the full editorial here.