Romney dogged by "tax" vs. "penalty" debate

With the Capitol in the background, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks about the Supreme Court's health care ruling, Thursday, June 28, 2012, in Washington.
(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(CBS News) After last week's landmark Supreme Court decision upholding President Obama's health care law, debate has turned to questions surrounding the fee some Americans will have to pay if they choose not to buy health insurance under the law: Is it a penalty, as many Democrats insist, or a tax, as Republicans -- as well as Chief Justice John Roberts -- claim?

According to CBS News Political Director John Dickerson, it's essentially a "semantic game."

But it's one that continues to dog Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor passed a similar health care law during his gubernatorial tenure, which included an individual mandate similar to that under scrutiny in the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act.

Now, somewhat uncharacteristically, he's siding with the Obama administration in referring to the fee as a "penalty" -- not a tax.

"The problem for Governor Romney is that he has an identical mechanism in his Massachusetts law and that Gov. Romney repeatedly over the years has talked about the tax in that law," Dickerson said in an appearance on "CBS This Morning." "He called it a 'tax' in the past. His adviser now is calling it a 'penalty.' Why the change in tone or why the change in the word?"

"They don't want to admit that Gov. Romney was raising taxes in the past or called it a tax in the past," Dickerson continued. "This is a semantic game, but the governor doesn't want to get on the wrong side of the tax question."

Instead, Dickerson says, the Romney campaign will focus on pivoting the debate back to more comfortable ground: The economy. With the release of a new set of monthly unemployment numbers this Friday, Romney may get his chance.

"This Friday there will be a release of the unemployment numbers that will move the conversation right back to the economy again," Dickerson says. "That's where he wants to stay. It's where he has the best chance."

Rehashing the health care debate, he argues, has limited benefits for Romney: "To get real advantage from that issue he would need to convince people who aren't already convinced - who don't already hate the legislation -- and as we've talked about, he's got some complexity there with his Massachusetts record and some conflict with this own party on this question with tax and penalty."