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Clinton's assessment of Bush tax cuts misconstrued by news media

:MARIA BARTIROMO: So does that mean extending the tax cuts?PRES.

This morning’s presidential campaign brouhaha is over remarks made by former President Bill Clinton last night, during an interview with CNBC's Maria Bartiromo. Numerous news outlets reported that Clinton broke with the Obama campaign and advocated an extension of the Bush tax cuts. But in fact, the transcript of Clinton’s remarks tells a different story.

Here, from the Huffington Post, is the relevant portion of the interview [emphasis added]:

MARIA BARTIROMO: So does that mean extending the tax cuts?PRES. BILL CLINTON: Well, I think what it means is they will have extend-- they 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 going to-- 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.

The takeaway is a bit garbled, but here is what we know Clinton said for sure:

  • The Bush tax cuts should not be permanently extended
  • Whether or not to permanently extend the tax cuts is the main point of contention among Democrats and Republicans
  • Congress should not deal with the Bush tax cuts right away—whether that would mean extending them or terminating them

A typical writeup of Clinton’s remarks, from the Associated Press, leads with the claim that Clinton said “broad tax cuts set to expire in January should be temporarily renewed.” The AP's interpretation is possible, but unlikely. “Extending all of it now,” in Clinton’s words, could just as easily mean holding current taxation and spending levels in place until January 1, when the Bush tax cuts are set to expire anyway. That would hardly be a renewal.

The Clinton team’s clarification hews pretty close to that interpretation, saying:

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.