Mitt Romney declared on Wednesday that President Obama's health care mandate was in fact a tax, shifting his campaign's characterization of the law and aligning himself with the conservative voices in his party.
Mr. Romney's remarks, made in a hastily arranged interview with CBS News on a national holiday, prompted renewed criticisms that he was willing to adjust his views for political expediency. Two days earlier, his chief spokesman and senior strategist had said that Mr. Romney did not believe the mandate should be called a tax.
Mr. Romney was already in the uncomfortable position of standing at odds with the dominant Republican Party message on health care: that President Obama was imposing a burdensome new tax on the middle class by requiring health insurance. His latest statement, while carrying the short-term risk of allowing his opponent to brand him a flip-flopper, helps him square an issue that could be a political liability with conservative voters in November.
A debate over whether a requirement to carry health insurance can be considered a tax — as the Supreme Court last week ruled it could — has consumed the presidential campaign since the decision. Conservatives, despite their deep dismay over the ruling, have pounced on the tax issue, saying Mr. Obama deceived the American people by disguising a huge tax increase as a health care reform bill.
Asked twice on Wednesday whether the president's mandate amounts to a tax, Mr. Romney said that it did.
"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 CBS News. "They have spoken. There's no way around that." He later repeated his assertion to CNN after a Fourth of July parade here, an idyllic summer retreat on the edge of Lake Winnipesaukee.
The Obama campaign seized on Mr. Romney's words, calling it a glaring contradiction of his chief spokesman's remarks. "First, he threw his top aide Eric Fehrnstrom under the bus by changing his campaign's position," the campaign said. "Second, he contradicted himself by saying his own Massachusetts mandate wasn't a tax."
Mr. Fehrnstrom's comments on Monday, in which he also said that Mr. Romney felt the health care law was unconstitutional and should have been invalidated, were backed up by a campaign news release that day saying that Mr. Romney believed the mandate is "an unconstitutional penalty" — notably, not a tax.
The backlash that erupted on Wednesday was a reminder of just how problematic the issue of health care reform is for Mr. Romney. As governor of Massachusetts, he oversaw the 2007 fulfillment of a first-in-the-nation plan requiring that nearly every state resident obtain health insurance or pay a penalty if they failed to do so.
The question of the "individual mandate," as the requirement is known, has emerged as one of the most polarizing national political issues of the day. It helped propel the Tea Party movement to mainstream politics, with conservatives calling it a gross overreach of federal power and an infringement on personal liberty.
Mr. Romney's support of the Massachusetts plan deepened suspicions among many conservatives, who were already wary of him because of the more liberal positions he once took on social issues like abortion and gay rights.
His comments about the mandate being a tax came on an otherwise slow Fourth of July, ensuring that they dominated the news cycle, albeit one that fewer people than usual were paying attention to.
By insisting the mandate is a tax, Mr. Romney has opened himself up to the criticism that he, too, raised taxes as governor. His campaign has sought to portray him as a tax cutter, despite the Obama campaign's efforts to highlight state fees that rose under Mr. Romney.
In the CBS interview, he insisted that he had not imposed a tax and sought to draw an academic distinction between taxes and penalties.
"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. "And as a result, Massachusetts's mandate was a mandate, was a penalty, was described that way by the legislature and by me, and so it stays as it was."
Mr. Romney appeared to be making a finer point about the absolute role the Supreme Court plays in setting American law, even if the nuance was lost on many. "Well, the Supreme Court has the final word and their final word is that Obamacare is a tax. So it's a tax," he said.
He also sought to reconcile his comments on Wednesday with his earlier positions — and put himself in line with conservatives — by saying he agreed with the dissent in the Supreme Court case. That dissent, by Anthony M. Kennedy and three more conservative justices — Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — called the majority's ruling "vast judicial overreach" and argued that the health care law should have been struck down.
Bill Burton, a founder of Priorities USA Action, a "super PAC" supporting Mr. Obama, said that "Romney's ideological gymnastics will both weaken his standing on the health care debate but, more importantly, will further undercut any notion of strength in his leadership."
Mr. Romney's remarks proved a distraction from what should have been a day of patriotic photo-ops as he vacationed in New Hampshire. He appeared in the annual Fourth of July parade here, energetically working the crowds. "Terrific to see you!" he said, beaming as he stretched his hands out toward the onlookers, sometimes shaking with both hands. "Hey, how are you? Happy Fourth of July!"