It’s probably good for Mitt Romney that the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare in June rather than closer to the election—it gives Romney a chance to right himself with the proper response.

Conservatives should care about the constitutional issues involved. That said, Romney’s wavering on whether the mandate is a tax or not doesn’t really matter. The key thing is: if elected, will Romney help the citizenry save itself from this massive federal law? Tax or exercise of the powers of the Commerce Clause, the law is bad. But Romney's tentativeness nevertheless mattered.

Mona Charen explains why:

Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom’s blunder — telling an interviewer that Romney believes the individual mandate is not a tax — was politically dumb, if revealing. It suggests that the Romney camp continues to struggle with the ghost of Romneycare. Romney’s subsequent attempt at clarification, saying that it’s a tax because the Supreme Court said it is, “though I agreed with the dissent,” succeeded only in further confusing matters.

The campaign desperately needs clarity on this issue. It needs also to shake that worrying tentativeness on Romneycare — a timidity that suggests to voters that Romney has something to hide.

National Review's poll question this morning is whether Romney blew it with his campaign's faltering response. When I checked, responses were running fifty-fifty. Not good, as National Review is a conservative bellwether. I think Romney's response mattered but only because it might have signalled to voters, especially the more conservative ones, that Romney, if elected, might “grow” in office and abandon his promise to get rid of Obamacare. Conservatives remember that President George H. W. Bush "grew" in office, reneging on his promise not to raise taxes. Fresher is the bitter memory of Chief Justice and newspaper-reader John Roberts' apparent growth.  

Conservative voters worry that any politician elected to high office but not committed in his gut to conservative positions will, living in Washington and being constantly battered or nudged by the mainstream media, will “grow,” as abandoning a core conservative position is described in the media, and sell out the conservatives in flyover country who cast their votes hoping for something else.

Romney, of course, seems to feel burdened by the health insurance system he put in place in Massachusetts. You can be sure President Obama will thank Romney for the prototype during the presidential debates. Charen explains why Romney needn’t flinch and what he should say:

The answer to the question “Wasn’t Romneycare exactly the same thing as Obamacare?” is, to quote Nancy Pelosi, “Are you serious?” The Massachusetts law contained an individual mandate (which states, unlike the federal government, are allowed to impose). But it did not consist of 2,700 pages of new regulations; 159 new boards and commissions; more than $500 billion in new taxes (and counting); the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a rationing board whose decisions are unreviewable by the courts and practically untouchable by Congress itself; restrictions on religious liberty; Medicare cuts; affirmative-action mandates for medical and dental schools; huge new authority over one-seventh of the U.S. economy for the secretary of health and human services, and open-ended regulations of the way doctors and others perform their jobs.

Beyond that, a glance at the history of Romneycare in Massachusetts shows that Romney’s instincts and initiatives were for free-market reforms. An 85 percent Democratic legislature thwarted his best efforts, and a Democratic successor as governor twisted the law’s trajectory dramatically. …

Romney’s idea was to permit Massachusetts insurers to sell catastrophic plans. As Avik Roy explained in Forbes, “Shorn of the costly mandates and restrictions originating in earlier state laws, these plans, called ‘Commonwealth Care Basic,’ could cost much less. Romney also proposed merging the non-group and small-group markets, so as to give individuals access to the more cost-effective plans available to small businesses.” Romney’s plan would also have involved a degree of cost sharing, so that those receiving subsidies would have an incentive to minimize their consumption.

Romney agreed to the mandate believing that Massachusetts citizens would get the opportunity to purchase inexpensive, catastrophic plans. But the legislature, together with Romney’s successor as governor, Deval Patrick, changed the law to require insurers to offer three tiers of coverage — all of them far beyond catastrophic care. Perhaps Romney ought to have foreseen what future legislatures and governors would do — but that’s a far cry from the accusation that Romneycare was indistinguishable from Obamacare.

As I said, it’s a good thing for Romney the decision didn’t come down in October—he has time to read Mona before the debates.