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Did Boehner Capitulate on Taxes?

A bump in the road on the way to extending tax cuts.

2:33 PM, Sep 13, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Minority leader John Boehner, appearing on CBS's Face the Nation yesterday, said he would vote for a bill extending tax rates for everyone but households making more than $250,000 if it's "the only option I have." Clearly he hadn't read this week's editorial!

Boehner's concern seems to be public perception. He doesn't want the public to think he's blocking an extension of current tax rates for the middle class. As a Boehner aide later explained to Politico,

Despite what Obama says, Republicans are not holding middle-class tax cuts hostage, and we're not going to let him get away with those types of false claims. Our focus remains on getting bipartisan support for a freeze on all current rates, because that is what is best for the economy and small-business job creation. Boehner's words were calculated to deprive Obama of the ability to continue making those false claims, and as a result, we are in a better position rhetorically to pressure more Democrats to support a full freeze.

This strikes me as an overly defensive and negative way to think about one's role in the tax debate. Obama is going to make false claims no matter what the Republicans say. The more important issue is whether it's right or wrong, as a matter of economic policy at this moment, to maintain current tax rates on incomes, estates, dividends, and capital gains for another two years. And if you want to foster investment, risk-taking, job creation, and growth, increasing taxes is exactly the wrong thing to do in a soft economy.

What's especially puzzling about Boehner's statement is that it arrived just as Democrats like Joe Lieberman are moving to the anti-tax-hike position. Moreover, the comment suggests a split in the Republican caucus when in fact it is the Democrats who are splintering and fleeing the president.

Perhaps Boehner committed a Kinsley Gaffe, when a politician inadvertently speaks the truth. That is, perhaps Boehner foresees a situation in which he and the Republicans will have to settle for less, simply because they don't have the numbers on their side. If that's the case, though, Boehner's gaffe was triply wrong. Not only was he wrong to commit the gaffe, he was substantively wrong because Blue Dogs and Red State Democrats may well put a two-year extension of all rates over the top. And he was strategically wrong since it's never a good idea to announce your final position at the outset of a negotiation.

My guess is that Boehner's comment won't be enough to settle the tax fight in Obama's favor. Things are still up in the air. Rich Lowry's sources on the Hill say the real action will be in the Senate, where a significant and growing number of Democrats are for an extension. But that Face the Nation appearance sure didn't make things any easier.

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