You Say Tax, I Say Penalty; Let’s Not Call the Whole Thing Off

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The recent Supreme Court decision on Obamacare has ignited a debate over how the Presidential candidates frame their arguments about the individual mandate. Republicans – despite Romney’s meander toward the “T” word – frame it as a new “tax”. Anti-Romneylans don’t call it a “tax”, but a “penalty”. Is there a difference in practical terms for your average uninsured citizen?

It’s not as though this is a new argument. Bush the Elder made the Romneyesque boner of his career when he gave a rousing speech at the 1988 Republican Convention. The Mother of All Sound Bites was his now famous guarantee, “Read my lips, no new taxes” which would dog him for the rest of his political days – days not unlike those we’re suffering in the run up to the 2012 election.

Sound Familiar?

Bush’s handlers, including Roger Ailes and speechwriter Peggy Noonan, coined the phrase to shore up support for Bush who was behind in the polls and viewed as weak and vacillating. Sound familiar? They wanted something bold, brave, and brash and Peggy came through in spades. Even anti-tax gadfly Grover Norquist was pleased to have Bush’s support after a period of Bushian weakness and vacillation before signing.

From a political perspective, the guarantee was sheer folly. It flew in the face of the reality that no matter how many cuts you have, “no tax pledges” are not an option when economic times get rough –like they were when Bush bushwhacked himself.  That sounds vaguely familiar too, eh?

In fact, it was such folly the phrase found its way into pop culture. Dana Carvey teased the Bush Man mercilessly on SNL with his dead-on impressions. Kids got in on the act when the Rugrats’ Lou Pickles said, “Read my clips, no new branches” as he trimmed a hedge. Bush wasn’t even safe from his own son, Bush the Lesser, who uttered the phrase, “Read my lips, no new tuxes” as he chafed at the idea of wearing formal clothing (probably finished off by fancy, non-presidential Tony Lama’s).

For a while, he held to his pledge by calling new taxes “fees”. This only served up new comic gold for his comedic detractors. It also didn’t hornswoggle taxpayers who actually pay them and know them when they see them, regardless of the linguistic chicanery Bush used.

“Read My Lips: New Taxes”

Eventually, Bush the Elder had to agree to new “taxes” to keep things moving. Taxes that even St. Ronnie of Reagan supported. Bush began his long descent into the history of political stupidity until he got a possible successor, Mitt Romney.

To his credit, Romney has been dragging his feet about calling the mandate a tax, despite supporters – many of them around for Bush’s fox paw – to go nuclear with the dreaded “T” word. But the “T” word is beginning to drip nicely from his lips and his vacillation is making him look even more confused and weak than people already perceive. He may have the intelligence of a croissant, but even he can see the potential problems down the road.

However, there is a bottom line in all this. Despite some legal wrangling about the ability to levy taxes versus penalties, the whole affair doesn’t mean much to those subject to it. They’ll pay the same whatever you call it. People don’t like the idea of taxes, especially when they are the ones to pay. They’re far more forgiving when others must fork it over. In the case of the mandates, very few people will pay those whatchamacallits for not using the insurance scheme. In the end it will mostly be Grover Norquist and the Teabags singing the sad tax song.

Come on fellas, stop acting like dictionary editors and get on with it.

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