After a handful of off-message comments from Bill Clinton, much of the political establishment has decided that the former president has become a thorn in the White House's side, taking positions that undercut the Democratic agenda. Most of this has been overblown, but it's a meme now, and the political establishment seems to like it.
So when Clinton appeared on CNBC's "Closing Bell with Maria Bartiromo" yesterday, and raised the prospect of extending Bush-era tax rates, Republicans and reporters pounced.
They should have looked before they leaped. Here's what the former president told Bartiromo:
"[Policymakers] will probably have to put everything off until early next year. That's probably the best thing to do right now. But the Republicans don't want to do that unless he agrees to extend the tax cuts permanently, including for upper income people.
"And I don't think the president should do that. That's what they're fighting about. I don't have any problem with extending all of it now, including the current spending level. They're still pretty low, the government spending levels. But I think they look high because there's a recession. So the taxes look lower than they really would be if we had two and a half, 3% growth. And the spending is higher than it would be if we had two and a half, 3% growth because there are so many people getting food stamps, so many people getting unemployment, so many people are Medicaid.
"But the real issue is not whether they should be extended for another few months. The real issue is whether the price the Republican House will put on that extension is the permanent extension of the tax cuts, which I think is an error."
Many saw Clinton use the word "extend," and immediately assumed the former president was taking the Republicans' side in the upcoming fight. He wasn't.
Clinton was effectively taking the line of leaving existing policies in place temporarily -- a policy the Obama White House could certainly live with -- and rejecting Republican calls for permanent tax breaks and massive spending cuts. He even went on to say, "[T]he thing that cost jobs here has been the Congress's policies."
The former president didn't agree with the GOP in the interview; he did largely the opposite.
But since the interview caused such a stir, his spokesperson issued a statement, clarifying matters.
"Two questions have been raised regarding President Clinton's interview on CNBC today. First, on extending the Bush tax cuts, as President Clinton has said many times before, he supported extending all of the cuts in 2010 as part of the budget agreement, but does not believe the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans should be extended again. In the interview, he simply said that he doubted that a long-term agreement on spending cuts and revenues would be reached until after the election.
"Second, on the current condition of the economy, he said at the top of the interview that the main goal for those in Washington was "to keep the expansion going." Later, in the interview, he said government spending levels were higher and revenues were lower than they would normally be because there was a recession and we're still living with the aftermath of it. It's obvious since we've had 4.3 million new private sector jobs in the last 27 months that we're not in a recession, even though we'd all like growth to be higher."