Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts surprised the news media and legal community alike when he joined the four liberal justices and affirmed the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, not under the Commerce Clause as widely considered more plausible, but under Congress’ taxing power. Predictably, congressional Republicans pounced on his opinion as evidence that President Obama broke his campaign promise to never raise taxes on middle class Americans.
“The Supreme Court, which has the final say, says it is a tax. The tax is going be levied, 77 percent of it, on Americans making less than $120,000 a year. So it is a middle class tax cut — tax increase,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It’s now a tax, since the court said it was a tax,” agreed House Speaker John Boehner. Several Republican politicians and conservative media folks have gone off the deep end, asserting ObamaCare is the biggest tax increase in America’s history – “the largest tax increase in the history of the world,” according to Rush Limbaugh. Such ridiculous claims can be easily disproved, but speak to the broader issue of anti-tax dogmatism we see today on the right.
Much attention has been given to a 2009 interview between the president and George Stephanopoulos, where Obama repeatedly and unequivocally maintained the ACA does not raise taxes. Obama’s predictable political stratagem appalled the conservative media, which has seized the incident as further evidence of Obama’s thuggish, deceptive and socialistic tendencies.
After showing a video of Obama chief strategist David Axelrod claiming the ACA is in fact a penalty, Sean Hannity of Fox News asked Governor Sarah Palin the tough questions:
SEAN HANNITY: This is a tough question, but one I think needs to be asked. Did the president, is David Axelrod — is this deceit or is this a lie? Is this a purposeful lie?
SARAH PALIN: It is a lie and it was a purposeful lie back in September of ’09 when President Obama got in George Stephanopoulos’ face and tried to school him and tell George as a filter for the American public to be receiving information, tried to tell George, you are spinning this up, you are the one lying, George, when you suggest that this is a tax. Well, it as tax and anybody with common or economic sense applied knew that it would be a tax. And that is the only thing that would fly making it legitimate that is constitutional in the Supreme Court as we found out.
HANNITY: You know, as we look at all of these issues though as they’re now unfolding here, I would like to see the media ask the president himself. He’s told the America — you sold this as not being a tax and in fact it is a tax. I think it is a big deal.
What fascinates me most is the implication that Roberts’ opinion somehow changes the substantive reality of the Affordable Care Act. Republican Party political operatives are understandably concerned with public perceptions, so it’s not surprising that the RNC and Republican leadership exploited the ruling as an opportunity to feign outrage at the supposedly new revelation that the individual mandate is a tax. But shouldn’t the conservative media, which is ostensibly not merely a wing of the Republican Party, be more interested in the substance of the policy than in trivial rhetorical semantics? If Congress passed a law collecting an additional 10 percent of each American’s income, but insisted it was merely a penalty for labor and not a tax on income; besides its constitutional implications, why would this distinction matter to the American public? Non-partisan policy analysts, both liberals and conservatives, simply don’t care what the individual mandate is called.
But Republicans do care. They care because tax is a bad word. In fact, to conservatives it is the dirtiest word in American politics.
Liz Marlantes of the Christian Science Monitor reported the history of American tax politics, from Ronald Reagan’s historic tax cuts and subsequent tax increases, to George H.W. Bush’s broken tax pledge, to the militant anti-tax norms in the contemporary Republican Party.
[I]n recent years, the aversion to taxes has become more deeply ingrained. It is more than a policy preference, more than a tenet in a party platform. For many Republican officeholders, raising taxes is a subject they simply won’t broach anymore – period. If there is a third rail of politics today, it might not be Social Security. It might be tax increases.