Poor Mitt Romney. Even when he is handed the football with a clear path to the goal line, he seems almost unable not to fumble it along the way.

In his majority opinion ruling the Affordable Care Act consitututional, Supreme Court Justice John G. Roberts Jr. surprisingly said the law's mandate was a tax and therefore within Congress' revenue-raising power. In doing so, he presented Mr. Romney a prime argument for accusing President Barack Obama of heaping more billions of dollars in taxes on the middle class.


But the likely Republican nominee, instead of instantly seizing the decision to make that case against Mr. Obama, contradicted one of his own political aides who tried to do so. A Romney campaign release contended that mandating the citizenry to shell out to the feds in lieu of buying health insurance was not a tax, just "an unconstitutional penalty."

It was the same flimsy distinction Mr. Romney had used in earlier defending the health care insurance law he enacted as governor of Massachusetts, which is widely seen as a model for Mr. Obama's plan (and so acknowledged by the president).

Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth. Other Republicans were falling over themselves in a rush to take up the campaign bonanza Chief Justice Roberts had just handed Mr. Romney by slapping the tax label on "Obamacare." Their candidate responded, though, by kissing it off.

On Independence Day, apparently in a flash of political clarity, Mr. Romney realized what he had done. In the midst of celebrating the nation's 236th birthday in New Hampshire, he found time to give a rare interview to CBS News, in which he tried to clean up the mess.

Regarding the court decision he had so recently lamented, Mr. Romney offered his sword. "The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land," he averred, "and it said that it's a tax, so it's a tax. They have spoken. There's no way around that."

At the same time, however, he said he agreed with the court's four dissenting conservatives. They called the ruling, led surprisingly by old comrade-in-arms Chief Justice Roberts, a "vast judicial overreach" in relying on the tax power to legitimize the law. So which was it?

Once again, the author of the Massachusetts version of "Obamacare" painted himself into a corner. Either he was confused or a willing flip-flopper getting in step with his party.

The whole business may have been no more than a momentary lapse of clear thinking on Mr. Romney's part. But it's another suggestion that he lacks the political antennae of a polished campaigner and seems to have little awareness of the impression he leaves at times of being a spinning weathervane.

His venerated late father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, was an early knockout victim in his bid for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination in part because he couldn't make up his mind where he stood on the Vietnam War. His infamous remark about having been "brainwashed" by the generals drove him out of the race.

Forty-four years later, as son Mitt tries to recoup with the GOP promise to "repeal and replace Obamacare," he can't afford to come across similarly as confused, vacillating or perhaps too light for the presidency.

When his father blurted out his gaffe long ago, acid-tongued Democratic rival Eugene McCarthy offered brutally that maybe "a light rinse" would have been enough to do the job. The Mitt Romney camp had better hope there's no latter-day Gene McCarthy lurking in Mr. Obama's campaign, or in one of his "independent" super PACs that can be as mean as it cares to be, to come up with a comparable zinger.

But who knows -- in the current absence of mutual respect and huge infusion of money fueling no-holds-barred negative campaigning -- what depths the 2012 campaign may yet reach, on both sides? The fight over health care reform will go on with plenty of heat. If we're lucky, though, there will be time also for much-needed light on what the law really will and will not do as its provisions lock in. And time also for its foes to offer more detail on what they say will replace it.

Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.