Mitt Romney, Clumsy on Health Care, Is Shellacked by Conservatives

Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

Mitt Romney is facing the backlash from conservatives that his opponents predicted in the primary, and it isn't pretty.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page, a standard-bearer of conservative thought and talking points, broke with the script this morning and published a critique of the Romney campaign's waffling on whether to call the health care mandate a tax after the Supreme Court ruled it so.

By calling the mandate a penalty and not a tax, the paper said, the Romney campaign "contradicted Republicans throughout the country." And even though Romney later said in an interview that the penalty is a "tax," the Journal wrote, "he offered no elaboration, and so the campaign looks confused in addition to being politically dumb."

It doesn't end there. William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine who has long been skeptical of Romney, wrote this morning that harping on the economy won't guarantee Romney victory, especially if he won't take specific stances on issues.

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"Adopting a prevent defense when it's only the second quarter and you're not even ahead is dubious enough as a strategy," Kristol wrote. "But his campaign's monomaniacal belief that it's about the economy and only the economy, and that they need to keep telling us stupid voters that it's only about the economy, has gone from being an annoying tick to a dangerous self-delusion."

Kristol told ABC News shortly after his critique went online that he hadn't yet read the Journal's widely circulated op-ed, although he agrees with it. The Weekly Standard Tuesday wrote a similar piece about Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom's comment on MSNBC that Romney didn't think the mandate penalty was a tax.

"Why did Romney do it? Presumably because calling the Obamacare tax a tax would, by implication, mean that Romney's mandate in Massachusetts could be similarly labeled," Stephen Hayes wrote in the piece titled, "A Tax Is a Tax Is a Tax."

Conservatives' displeasure with Romney doesn't mean they won't vote for him, and it certainly doesn't mean they'll vote for Obama instead. But it does give Democrats a nice line of attack when people who should be Romney's allies start picking apart his message.

The conservative media tycoon Rupert Murdoch has also signaled his cool feelings to Romney's team. Murdoch, the owner of Fox News and the Journal, wrote on Twitter: "Met Romney last week. Tough O Chicago pros will be hard to beat unless he drops old friends from team and hires some real pros. Doubtful."

Conservative business guru Jack Welch agreed: "Hope Mitt Romney is listening to Murdoch advice on campaign staff..playing in league with Chicago pols..No room for amateurs."

In its editorial, the Journal targeted Romney's messaging team, writing: "Team Obama is now opening up a new assault on Mr. Romney as a job outsourcer with foreign bank accounts, and if the Boston boys let that one go unanswered, they ought to be fired for malpractice."

The struggle with semantics and details reflects Romney's fear of being called a flip-flopper on issues, but it also validates the claims made by his conservative opponents in the primary that nominating Romney would lead to awkward situations about Obama's hotly disputed health care law, which is similar to the legislation Romney championed in Massachusetts.

Rick Santorum, Romney's main primary opponent, called him the "worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama" because of their similarities on health care. Romney's main defense in that squabble has been that his plan was for Massachusetts only, not the country, which makes it better.

"Mitt Romney is uniquely disqualified to contrast President Obama on the most important issue of the day, health care," Santorum's campaign later said in a statement.

Romney's campaign hasn't yet responded to the Journal's editorial, although it has spent a significant amount of time today compiling quotes from Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt, who said on CNN today that President Obama disagrees with the Supreme Court's ruling that the mandate penalty is a tax, even though the court upheld the law.