Mitt Romney has been on both sides of the “Is the mandate a tax?” question this week. But apparently he didn’t flip-flop fast enough for the Wall Street Journal.

Today the Journal’s editorial page savaged Romney for his campaign's insistence early in the week that the mandate is a penalty, not a tax.  Yesterday, Romney announced that, upon further consideration, the mandate is, in fact, a tax.

The Journal grudgingly notes this change of heart in the ninth paragraph. Yet nowhere in the entire, frothing-at-the-mouth editorial is there any discussion of why it thinks Romney surrogates were wrong on the merits when they insisted the mandate is a penalty, not a tax.

It’s bizarre. The conservative dissent to Roberts decision -- the one the Journal and most Republican elected officials say they agree with -- is founded on the proposition that the individual mandate is not a tax. The justices say it plainly on page 24 of their dissent: “Congress imposed a regulatory penalty, not a tax.” When the Journal insists that Romney should “declare accurately” that the mandate is a tax, it is saying that Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito were all wrong.

Romney attempted to finesse the issue yesterday, saying that the mandate is a tax because the Supreme Court says it’s a tax, and the Supreme Court gets to interpret the Constitution. That line works until you realize that Romney has thus committed himself to other propositions he probably doesn’t want to own, such as, “There is a constitutional right to abortion.”

Romney is in the unusual position of having gotten tripped up because he was trying to maintain ideological consistency -- he says the mandate is unconstitutional, and therefore he can’t hold that it’s a tax. But the Journal and other conservative critics recognize that, on issues this complicated, ideological consistency is unimportant. Taxes are bad and the mandate is bad; therefore, the mandate must be a tax. So what if that runs afoul of the constitutional logic? Don’t think about it too hard.

It must be tough to be Mitt Romney. He’s a smart man, but his constituency constantly demands that he say stupid things. His path to the presidency has been incredibly degrading, and this week’s bit of hazing is just the latest example. But a conservative elite that actively encourages the rise of an uncontrollable, know-nothing base has made matters much worse for him, and the country, than they need to be.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)

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